One of my professors once made the startling statement that, “one cannot measure speed.” This came as something of surprise to those of us who had speedometers in our cars. Yet, the professor had made a profound point. In science, it is vitally important to know exactly what phenomenon one actually measures. Especially in the arena of public policy, we often act as if we have accurate measurements of phenomena when we actually do not. I think the problem is especially bad when it comes to the question of mental health.
Let’s start with speed. We talk as if we measure speed directly all the time. Indeed, we have laws based on the idea. However, we don’t actually measure a single phenomenon called “speed.” We actually take separate measurements of distance and time and mathematically combine them to create a synthetic measurement called “speed.” The speedometer in a car doesn’t even measure distance directly. It actually measures the number of rotations of the axle during a set period of time. Change the diameter of the tires and suddenly the speedometer does not measure the “correct” speed. Prop the car up on the rollers of an engine test bed and the speedometer will report that the car is whizzing down the road at 80 mph while it sits perfectly still. Speed does not exist. Only space and time exist and we measure those.
Scientists routinely use such proxy or synthetic measurements but doing so can backfire:
Historical measurements of ozone, for example, are expressed in Dobson units which do not measure ozone directly but rather use a spectrometer to measure the ratio of the abundance of different wavelengths of ultraviolet light that create or destroy ozone. But the long-term accuracy of this method is based on the assumption that the distribution of wavelengths of ultraviolet coming from the sun remains constant over time. As long as that remains true, scientists can reasonably infer that changes in the ratio measured on the ground result from changes in the atmosphere. However, recent solar observations suggest that the solar UV spectrum changes significantly in sync with solar magnetosphere (sunspot) activity. That means that the lion’s share of ozone data collected over the last 80+ years may be highly inaccurate. Whoops.
Tree ring data is often used as a proxy measurement of seasonal temperature changes under the assumption that warmer seasons produce thicker rings. Yet, temperature isn’t the only factor that controls ring growth. Moisture plays a significant role as well. Trees grow fastest in a warm, wet season and slowest in a cool, dry one; but a warm, dry season produces the same growth as a cool, wet one. Telling warm and dry from warm and wet is very difficult and seldom done.
The most commonly used medical tests for pathogens rely on detecting the presence of antibodies for the pathogens, but if the patient’s immune system hasn’t yet evolved an antibody for a pathogen the test will generate a false negative. An individual can be cram-packed with microbes but the test won’t measure them. Even the older, incubation test will fail. We still can’t identify diseases which we cannot reliably incubate in the lab. Many yeast, protozoa and most viruses often escape our scrutiny because we can’t study them outside the body. Most of the viral illnesses we have names for are those that produce a highly visible rash. Otherwise, when the doctor says, “you have a virus,” he has no clue what virus you have.
In the social sciences, the measurement problems just get worse.
Economics fails as a predictive science precisely because we cannot actually measure economic activity. Many of the supposed measurements we use in our political discourse don’t look very meaningful when examined close up. Take gross national product. What actually gets measured in compiling that statistic? The answer would fill a shelf of binders and that is just for one country. Every country or region has its own standard. Then you have the entire question of what currency to measure in. Using the concept of purchasing power parity, China has the second-largest economy in the world. Expressed in US dollars, China has an economy of a size between the economies of Italy and France. The definition of unemployment grows super fuzzy the closer one looks at it, and again the definitions change over time and space.
In fact, virtually no supposed statistic in the social sciences rests on any firm physical measurement. Crime? Different jurisdictions define the same act as different types of crime or may disagree whether a crime occurred at all. Poverty? Do you define it by income or assets? The actual conditions in which a “poor” person lives change dramatically from era to era. Is a person with better housing, medical care, etc. just as “poor” as someone with the same relative income from 50 years previous? Domestic violence? Is it domestic if you beat up someone you just hooked up with? How about just living with or do you have to be legally married? Is it domestic if you do it in your living room but not if you do it in a bar? Homelessness? I was once classified as homeless under one federal study’s standards because I spent a couple months sleeping on a friend’s couch. (If I had been having sex with him I wouldn’t have been classified as homeless. Go figure.) Most homelessness studies use widely varying definitions of “homeless.” That is why “estimates” of homelessness range from a few hundred thousand to tens of millions.
Even statistics that would seem glaringly obvious grow fuzzy upon close examination. Take infant mortality. You would think that a dead baby is a dead baby, yet global infant mortality statistics use such widely differing definitions of a live birth that comparing region to region becomes meaningless. In most of America, a baby of any term that takes a breath outside the womb counts as a live birth. In most of Europe, a baby must survive several hours, usually 24, and be of 7+ months term to count as a live birth. Since babies are most likely to die immediately after birth, requiring hours of survival immediately improves infant mortality rates. Most of the apparent difference between American and European infant mortality rates disappears when these differences in the definition of live births are taken into account.
Mental illness also has little to no physical measurement. With the exception of mental illness caused by gross infection or endocrine disease, no clinical test exists for mental illness of any kind or degree. We functionally define mental illness based on a consensus-defined, subjective observational diagnoses. We train mental health professionals to diagnose mental illness by showing them a large number of patients with different degrees of apparent impairment and then saying, “we’ve agreed that this guy is crazy but this guy is not. If you see someone acting like the first guy, classify him as suffering from disease ‘X’ of degree ‘Y’.” Even attempts to use tests like the MMPI only correlate scores on the test with observational diagnoses of other people who took the test. Studies have shown that diagnoses both of disease and severity fluctuate significantly depending on both professional fads and available resources. Provide benefits for treating mental illness and suddenly you have a lot more of it.
We don’t at this time have any choice but to use observational diagnoses for mental health but this does present problems when debating public policy. For example, are we locking up large numbers of the mentally ill in prisons or do we define mental illness differently? If someone in prison is depressed is that normal or not? After all, they are in prison. If a region provides more mental health care, it will have more mental illness diagnoses. That means more people will have mental health records before incarceration. Does that mean more mentally ill people are locked up or that we moved the goal post? Have we changed the way we train the people making the diagnoses such that see problems that people before did not?
A great deal of table pounding and moral outrage gets expressed, supposedly in reaction to this or that statistic that purports to show some huge new problem about which something-must-be-done! Yet upon detailed examination we find that the statistic rests on quicksand. Change a minor assumption here or there and the “problem” disappears. We so desperately want to believe that we can measure, understand and correct problems that we do not ask the really hard questions about what we know and how accurately and precisely we know it.
You can’t measure speed and you can’t measure crazy.
28 thoughts on “Measuring Crazy”
As I read this post, I’m also sort of watching, for the 10th time, a show on the Science channel about Jupiter. (I never get tired of the pictures) It occurs to me that the two subjects are related in this tangential fashion—
We are uncertain and disfunctional in our approach to mental illness for much the same reason we are tentatively exploring, and being continuously surprised by, the outer palnets. This is the first time we have approached either phenomenon on a scientific, experimental basis, instead of just making stuff up.
For millenia, the planets and other natural features of our reality were ascribed a spiritual, animist existence, in which every change or shadow was a portent of something, every glow had meanings for life here on earth, and all these mysteries required the interpretation of “specialists” who had demonstrated some connection with higher spiritual awareness, and could explain these strange things to the rest of us mere mortals.
Oddly enough, the interpreters of much of reality, morality, and our significant cultural belief systems for a great deal of human history were, very probably, certifiably nuts in modern terms. Filled with supernatural visions, and hearing the voice of god, among others, on a regular basis, it is not unlikely that quite a few of these mystics and prophets were actually bi-polar, schizophrenic, paranoid, or some other combination of illnesses which we would commonly classify as insane in today’s medical terminology.
Indeed, mental illness as a treatable disease, instead of a case of demon possession or a sign of mystical powers, is a very modern concept. The formulations of Freud, who developed some of the terminolgy, and popularized the idea of, mental illness, in a sense, have now been largely discarded as far as treatment is concerned, and been replaced with pharmacological remedies.
So, the idea that we are struggling to come to grips with this scourge is not surprising. It is necessary to remember that we are, in some areas of our culture, struggling to come to grips with evolution as well. In the world at large, any number of “modern” ideas have been tried, for good or ill, and are still being experimented with and evaluated, even if the approach is often an unfortunate mix of scientific thought and mystical revelation, as seems to be the constant case with economics or governance.
I should stop now, even though, as always, there is much more I would like to say, especially about the pernicious effects of lawyers and legalism in this matter. But that is ubiquitous in our society, and should be the subject at another place and time.
My apologies for going on at such length. Your post was interesting and provocative, and I am concerned with this subject.
Of course, this is Bernard’s point – that the boundaries are elastic. In fact, the general population of prisons and mental hospitals is different; he points to that as well. It doesn’t seem to me that he is making the statement as simply as you define it.
Determining how much we want to enforce and where we want to enforce those boundaries as a society are questions such graphs indicate we deal with differently at different times. Some mental illness will probably be easier to diagnose as we develop a stronger understanding of the body and our diagnose is of the illness than the symptoms. Crime will always be defined by flexible boundaries.
What we consider crime says much about what we value. In the nineteenth century, fewer and fewer crimes became punishable by execution. On the other hand, crimes against women – most obviously rape – were punished more severely than in 1800. This tells us something about British society, but it also, clearly, had other effects.
arrgah, “speed does not exist”, geez, Shannon, one must sleep on some concepts before writing about them. This is one I fear.
Of course speed exists. It is “delta (or change in) distance / delta time”. It matters not that you measure it (accurately or not) or don’t measure it. The concept is real, mathematically and practically. To say it doesn’t is, well, crazy.
What class was this prof. teaching?
Of course speed exists. It is “delta (or change in) distance / delta time”
I didn’t say it didn’t exist. I said you could not measure it. To create the synthetic measurement of speed, you use one tool to measure distance and a second separate tool to measure time. The accuracy and precision of your speed calculations depend completely on accuracy and precision of measurements of distance and time. Conditions that throw off the accuracy and precision of measurements of distance OR time destroy the accuracy and precision of speed.
My professor wanted us to always keep in mind exactly what phenomenon we were measuring and not to fall into the fallacy of thinking that a synthetic measurement (one created from two or more real measurements) or a proxy measurement (a linked phenomenon) was actually the phenomenon you want to measure.
I always enjoy you articles because they are well research. In the matter of how fast we are moving…its much faster than you would think.
1. The earth rotates every 24 hours. Its circumference wher I live, is 24,000 miles which means I moving at 1000 miles per hour.
2. The earth’s orbit is 251.1 million miles covered in 365 days, 24 hours each, or 28,690 mph.
3. The sun of course is in orbit and so is our galaxy. So we are all moving at some astronomical speed which we don’t have a way of measuring. But we know its greater than $29,690 mph give or take 100 mph depending on which direction your driving.
“In the world at large, any number of ‘modern’ ideas have been tried, for good or ill, and are still being experimented with and evaluated, even if the approach is often an unfortunate mix of scientific thought and mystical revelation, as seems to be the constant case with economics or governance.”
I’d like to suggest that part of the difficulty we have in dealing with mental illness is illustrated by this comment. We are presented with an opposition between scientific and non-scientific thought, and the latter is dismissed as “mystical”. If we take this opposition as exclusive and exhaustive, and if we take as our model of properly scientific thought modern physics and/or Darwinian evolution, then we will encounter a problem when it comes to knowledge of human actions. Modern physics and evolutionary biology take as their fields of study phenomena that are (postulated to be) intrinsically devoid of meaning. Such an approach works remarkably well for each science. However, it does not seem to be possible to approach human action as intrinsically meaningless.
Consider Shannon’s discussion of speed. Speed can be (indirectly, if you insist) measured by measuring spatial and temporal position. Could human actions be understood in a similar fashion? I don’t think so. What has been called the “many/many” problem arises here. Indefinitely many spatio-temporal movements correspond to indefinitely many actions, and vice-versa. If a person emits the sound sequence “Look out, there’s a bear” has he thereby warned listeners that a bear is about? Not necessarily. It is easy to develop cases in which the person did not issue any such warning. Determining the meaning of the person’s action involves making judgments, most of them implicit and quite sophisticated, regarding the context of the utterance. Furthermore, notice that the action-description “warned listeners . . . ” implicitly refers to the purpose of the statement. Purposes, of course, are precisely what the pre-eminent modern sciences dispense with.
Human action is, I am claiming, intrinsically meaningful–full of purpose, value, intentionality, significance, et al. Our judgments concerning mental illness are likewise, and inescapably, evaluative. They depend upon some conception of mental health, which I would suggest is not separable from our conceptions of how people should (and should not) act, and what people should strive to be (and to avoid being–one should not be a mass murderer).
Given the irreducible meaningfulness of human action, a contemporary psychology cannot take as its model of science a science that objectifies (ala Charles Taylor’s term of art) the objects that constitute its domain of inquiry. The attempt to do so, and the stigmatizing of approaches that take value and meaning to be central to human action as “subjective” or “mystical”, can only produce confusion and incoherence.
Stephen—be sure to make that point with an islamicist or hindu nationalist or tamil tiger or…the next time you are arguing that economic or political policy be determined in a rational, empirical fashion, instead of being based on the writings of centuries-old religious dogmas or the revelations of self-styled prophets.
Unless, of course, you reject rationalism entirely, in which case we have nothing to discuss.
I know cold coffee and I know hot coffee. But where’s the exact line between cold and hot coffee? Do I say that I cannot measure (or detect) that coffee is hot because I can’t state what that line is?
Most of our concepts are like cold and hot coffee…we cut up a continuous world into discrete categories, and mental illness is certainly one of those categories. It’s an undergraduate debating trick to say “it depends on your definitions or assumptions.” So do virtually all of our concepts; few are Newtonian concepts of mass, extension, or velocity.
As for the mentally ill people in prison, Shannon is asking whether they are intrinsically ill or whether prison has made them ill. The point is that they are ill (yes, measurably ill). We have about five times as many people in prison as we did in 1980 and our budget for community mental health has been flat, so that suggests, at least to me, that prisons are doing the duty of mental health centers–and a very, very bad job of it.
My point was not to reject rationality, nor to endorse an approach to inquiry that relies upon religious texts or traditions. In fact, one point I was trying to make is that this very dichotomy is incoherent when applied to the human domain. I do reject the idea that rationality is to be based upon a particular model of science derived from the (quite real) successes of physics and Darwinian biology. This image of rationality has a long and controversial history. Kant follows his Critique of Pure Reason with a Critique of Practical Reason because he recognizes a distinction between the two domains of thought. Later German philosophy would concern itself greatly with the problematic status of the human sciences–the geisteswissenshaften. In contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, Charles Taylor (Sources of the Self, among other works) and Hilary Putnam (Realism With a Human Face) challenge such a needlessly narrow understanding of objectivity and rationality. Their work is, naturally, controversial, but I don’t think either is accused of being an irrationalist or an apologist for religion.
Incidentally, Veryretired, I think your understanding of the history of science is a bit suspect. Pre-Galilean science was not based upon prophetic insight or religious dogma. It was based largely on the writings of Aristotle. Aristotelian science is teleological, but it is not generally taken to be a form of mysticism, and is not inherently dogmatic. It is dominated by experts, but then, what science isn’t?
“I know cold coffee and I know hot coffee. But where’s the exact line between cold and hot coffee? Do I say that I cannot measure (or detect) that coffee is hot because I can’t state what that line is?”
This post has nothing to do with fuzzy logic (in the computer science sense, not the woolly thinking sense), which is the problem you framed. The original fuzzy metaphor was the fuzzy bear. Take away one hair and he’s still fuzzy. Take away another? Still fuzzy. But at some point, you take away enough hair, and people call him bald, not fuzzy. How do you define the exact point where the descriptor changes? You can’t, but you can frame a Gaussian distribution of hair coverage, the mean of which is the point where most people say he is bald, not fuzzy. The spread of the distribution tells you something about the spread of perception about the word “fuzzy” within the human population, but very little about the ratio of hair to bare skin – for that you need an average count of hairs per square inch, and thus you leave the realm of the liberal arts and enter science. If you can’t put a number on it, it’s not science.
That, however misses the entire point of Shannon’s post. Temperature is basically the molecular motion of the substance at hand. By touching the coffee with your mouth, you are indirectly measuring the molecular motion by transferring some of that kinetic energy to your tissues. The nerves in your tissue then conduct an electrical impulse that, over certain temperature ranges, is a function of the kinetic energy transfer between the coffee and your mouth tissues – once again an indirect measure (but this time doubly indirect), just as your speedometer only indirectly measures speed.
If I give your mouth a shot of novocaine, the nerves would be less responsive to pain and conduct less of a signal from hot coffee. That, however, would not change the amount of kinetic energy in the hot coffee. If you are concerned about the tissue damage that you will sustain from a burn, the kinetic energy is all that matters, not your perception of hot or cold. Ask any diabetic with neuropathy in his or her feet about the irrelevance of pain sensation to measurement.
In order to get away from such semantic arguments, scientists measure temperature and pretty much everything else, with devices that can be calibrated, and hence yield comparable, numerical descriptors for physical phenomena. We don’t taste coffee, we put a thermometer in it. Shannon’s point is that we do not know enough about brain chemistry to measure, for example, norepinephrine or serotonin levels and make a clear statement that this level means depression, or another level of another marker means schizophrenia – and even then those markers would be indirect readings of the cognition of the subject at hand.
That being said, I do not totally agree with Shannon that crazy can’t be measured, and if I have time before I leave town, I’ll expand on that in a post of my own.
Stephen—my congratulations on being able to work a term like gewissen-whatever into the conversation. That must be a real showstopper around the pub when you’re talkn’ baseball with the guys.
Anyway, if you cannot see the difference in approach from a) declaring anyone who is distrubed to be possessed by evil spirits to b) Freudian subconscious analysis and talk therapy to c) a medical diagnosis and treatment with various pharmacological agents, then there is no common ground here to have a discussion.
And, by the way, Aristotle’s scientific judgements were the standard in the west because the Church declared them to be. Gallileo wasn’t a turning point just because he invented a telescope, but because he insisted on the primacy of empirical observation over dogma. That he was imprisoned and forced to recant is a pretty good example of the irrational as far as I’m concerned. You’re results, informed by several incomprehesible german and later philosophers, may vary, of course.
I don’t see how anything I have posted gives grounds for believing in demonic possession or, for that matter, Freudian psychotherapy. I find neither credible as a psychological explanation/description.
Shannon’s post raises the question of what it is we are measuring when we attempt to measure mental illness. This is a reasonable question, inasmuch as it directs attention to the nature of the phenomena to be studied. Now I take it that a science of psychology studies human action. The principal means by which we describe and differentiate actions is through meaning. The difference between a salute and a wave is largely a question of meaning (as distinguished from mere motion of the arm through space), which does not make the difference something an army private can safely ignore. The objects making up the domain of human actions are constituted in part by meanings. Any science which purports to abstract from, eliminate, or reduce meaning will, necessarily, distort the domain.
This does NOT mean a science of psychology is impossible, or that such a science may not use concepts and findings developed by, for instance, neuroscience. It means that such a science would need to take the prevalence of meaning as basic, and go on from there.
Final point: Kant is admittedly difficult to comprehend, although I think Dilthey is not too demanding a read. Putnam and Taylor are both excellent writers, and neither is as slippery as Rorty. Any of the major American pragmatists, including Pierce, James, and Dewey, can be found making similar points. None of these is incomprehensible.
We have about five times as many people in prison as we did in 1980 and our budget for community mental health has been flat, so that suggests, at least to me, that prisons are doing the duty of mental health centers–and a very, very bad job of it.
I think this is myth for the simple reason that imprisonment tracts by ethnic group whereas mental illness does not. About 70% of the prison population could be categorized as people of color but there is no similar pattern in mental illness diagnoses. African-Americans have significantly higher per capita rates of imprisonment than do white but their is no evidence that they suffer from mental illness at significantly higher higher levels than do whites.
Moreover, most mentally ill do not commit serious violent crimes. Indeed, their illnesses are far more likely to make them passive and withdrawn. They tend to commit minor crimes resulting from inattention (trespass, loitering, accidental theft etc). Most of the increase in the prison population in the last 20 years has resulted from significantly longer sentences given for violent offenses the overwhelming majority related to the drug trade. There is no evidence that the mentally ill are more likely to be drug dealers.
Modern physics and evolutionary biology take as their fields of study phenomena that are (postulated to be) intrinsically devoid of meaning.
I don’t understand that statement. It seems key to your argument.
I’m just taking a stab at this.. but he might be saying that the basis of physics is the magic world of quantum physics
and evolution is an as-yet unproved hypothesis that is accepted as fact…
Both are based on something other than a concrete foundation.
(though I would say quantum p. is obviously concrete because eventually the macro-world does form out of it even if we have no idea how that works)
I think evolution is a scam.
The statement you quote, minus the parenthetical aside, simply means that what we take today as modern physics and biology are sciences that treat all phenomena as non-intentional. Another way to put this would be that such sciences treat phenomena simply as phenomena. Yet another way to put it would be that such sciences treat their domains as devoid of meaning, purpose, value, and affiliated concepts.
Now, I am a fan of modern physics and biology, especially the latter. I rather wish most of the folks who talk about modern biology understood it better as a completely non-intentional (and so, non-teleological) science. And, just to be perfectly clear, I do not agree at all with the intentional design folks.
However, I also believe that any science should be suited to the nature of the objects that make up its domain. And psychology studies humans, and their actions (not behavior, a term that lamentably suggests behaviorism). The problem I have been trying to bring to attention is that human action is unintelligible if we insist upon abstracting from the meaning of such actions.
The great, truly remarkable, leap taken by such modern scientists as Galileo and Newton was to generate a science that successfully abstracted from any notion of meaning with respect to the behavior of objects in a space. Einstein and the quantum physicists elaborated this accomplishment in extraordinary ways. This has clearly been one of the great changes, advances even, in history.
That said, there is little reason to think that we can successfully understand human actions by abstracting from the meanings naturally attributed to such actions. A mass moving though space can be understood without any reference to its meaning, purpose, intention, or context. The same cannot be said for even the simplest human action. And, really, this claim strikes me as empirically about as well-founded as one could possibly wish.
To be clear: I fully accept modern physics and biology, and do not offer any fancy claims concerning the basis of either. I do not think of the major claims of either as hypotheses, if that is taken to mean that they are less than certain. I don’t know enough about quantum physics to even advance a statement about it, other than that I am ignorant of it. My critical claims are directed at the possibility of a science of psychology, not at a science of matter (or matter/energy, or whatever it is physicists today study). And I absolutely do not think that witches exist, that demonic possession is a contemporary reality, or that cultural relativism is something to be tolerated.
I want to make a pitch here for Hillary Putnam’s work. He is one of the most prominent American philosphers of the last quarter century, and surely one of the most readable. The ideas I’ve tried to present here are, at best, vague shadows derived from his writings. Best of all, Putnam makes a point of writing in such a way that, while challenging to the academic philosopher, he is accessible to the general reader. He deserves to be read, even if I am taken to be a silly fool.
Stephen – Shannon and I, and I suspect most of the Chicagoboyz, are pretty skeptical of philosophers talking about scientific subjects. Kant’s a good example – he kept trying to get his natural philosophy published as science (Newton envy, I think), and kept getting rejected because his work was basically navel gazing combined with undisciplined observations, not sytematic and quantifiable predictions.
I tend to agree with Professor Stephen Dutch’s comment here:
Show me why Putnam isn’t navel gazing, and I’ll listen. Meaning, can you measure her predictions and postulations?
Arrgh, messed up the bockquote. Dutch’s quote is here:
What is truth? How do we know it when we see it? How can we be sure our interpretation of it is valid? What about rival claims of truth? These are difficult questions, challenging questions, wonderful questions. They tell us a great deal about the limitations of our methods of inquiry. The one thing they cannot do – what I call the Fundamental Fallacy of Philosophy – is tell us anything at all about the nature of reality or the existence of truth. Philosophy since the days of the ancient Greeks has focused on the grand questions and the limitations of what and how we know, and as a result has remained stagnant. Science focused on what can be known and mushroomed.
Stephen—Thank you for the pointers about various philosophers. It has been so long since I majored in both philosophy and political science in college that I had forgotten all about them. Senility has its advantages.
I’m not sure, if I ever was, what you are arguing about. I was making the point, originally, that it is not surprising that we are struggling to define mental illness, as it was the subject of much non-scientific speculation in the past, and has only recently been dealt with in a medical/empirical fashion.
How you got from that to somehow believing I was accusing you of supporting witchcraft is a mystery to me, but, then, so is setting the timers on my TIVO. Thank god I have a teenager who does all that for me, even if he doesn’t understand the categorical imperative.
Anyway, I think I will just let this whole thing go. I might get an uncontrollable urge to read Wittgenstein again, and, you know how those 19th century German philosophers are, once you get started, you just can’t stop. Like peanuts.
So, as my hero, Dr Fronkensteen says, “Stop by anytime, we’re always open.” Aufwedersehen.
The problem I have been trying to bring to attention is that human action is unintelligible if we insist upon abstracting from the meaning of such actions.
It seems to me that your argument is leveraged entirely on your notion of “meaning” and your assumptions about the critical connection of meaning and human behavior. Yet you have not defined meaning, you appear to assume that there can be only one meaning associated with a particular action or behavior (how is action different than behavior?), and you have not explained why human behavior can only be interpreted in the one particular way that you favor. Behavioral psychology has a good record of helping individuals who might be called crazy, and it does so without much concern about abstract notions of meaning or motive. So why is “meaning” even a variable?
Or by “meaning” do you mean the social and physical context of behavior?
“What is truth? How do we know it when we see it? How can we be sure our interpretation of it is valid? What about rival claims of truth? These are difficult questions, challenging questions, wonderful questions. They tell us a great deal about the limitations of our methods of inquiry. The one thing they cannot do – what I call the Fundamental Fallacy of Philosophy – is tell us anything at all about the nature of reality or the existence of truth. Philosophy since the days of the ancient Greeks has focused on the grand questions and the limitations of what and how we know, and as a result has remained stagnant. Science focused on what can be known and mushroomed.”
While I don’t think it is the case that philosophy has stagnated, this very nice quote is not far off the mark. What endures in philosophy are questions. That tends to suit my own temperament, which I admit is rather odd. Successful sciences ask their questions in such a way that they are capable of being answered.
Now, reasons of temperament aside, why bother asking questions that resist resolution when it should be just as easy, and more profitable in every way, to ask questions that are capable of resolution? The only answer, I think, is that the recurrent philosophical questions are insistent. Once they come into view, they are even more difficult to dismiss than they are to resolve.
One cluster of such philosophical questions concerns the nature of human being. This cluster of questions begins to take on their modern form and urgency with the arc of scientific innovation extending from Copernicus to Newton. Copernicus makes an understanding of the position of the observer critical to the interpretation of data. Understanding what is observed becomes inseparable from understanding the nature of the observer, or to put it another way, our understanding of subject and object become mutually dependent.
At the other end of the arc, Newton’s physics presents us with a brilliant understanding of the objects of observation, but seems to leave no place at all for subjects. If one builds out of Newton’s physics a metaphysics, i.e. an all-embracing picture of the fundamental nature of reality, then all one has is intentionally inert objects and associated fields of force. The act of observation itself is absent from such a picture. Acts of observation are intentional in at least two respects. First, observation is always directed at something, it is always about something (one of Newton’s particles is not about anything at all, indeed aboutness is quite foreign to its nature). Second, any act of observation has a normative dimension, in that it can be right or wrong. Rightness and wrongness do not apply to particles moving through Newtonian space. Once you have fully described the object and its motion, it is absurd to add “and it was right (or wrong)”. But if someone claims to have observed a ghost, it is far from absurd to ask if that is what they really observed, i.e. to ask if they were right.
Now, I think this rather forces upon us the question of what is the nature of human being (and the allied question–what is the nature of the science humans create)? Descartes frames the first question in terms of an opposition between thinking things (subjects) and material things (objects). Leibniz makes everything a thinking thing. Materialists insisted that everything was made up of non-thinking things, but issued a promissory note to the effect that, at some point, it would be shown how thinking things can be constituted by non-thinking things.
However one goes about framing these questions and attempting to resolve them, they are questions about who we as humans are, and about the nature of our science. Hence, a certain element of self-reference, or navel-gazing, is unavoidable. Moreover, questions about the nature of science are not resolved simply by invoking the authority of science, since such questions are about the authority of science. And, although this should go without saying, to ask questions about the nature of the authority of science is not to deny its authority.
My view is that modern physics presents us with a picture of what is that is brilliant, useful, and mostly true. The string of conceptual innovations from Copernicus to Newton (and later brilliantly elaborated by Darwin in application to biology)is a staggering achievement of human thought, the import of which we are still trying to work out. But even a brilliant physics is not, and should not be taken as, a metaphysics, i.e. the picture of reality at its most fundamental. The picture of what is derived from physics is, necessarily, partial (as will be true of any picture, by the way).
An aspect of its partial nature is the inability of physics (and sciences modeled on physics) to deal with intentionality. The latter term collects such phenomena as meaning–linguistic meaning, of course, but also the meaning of gestures (salute or wave?) and actions (was that a touchdown? did he commit murder, or was he insane?), as well as the meaning of poems, stories, historical events and even music–purposes, and the vast realm of the normative, i.e. that which is reasonably (in some cases inescapably) subject to evaluation as right or wrong, good or bad, ugly or beautiful, and, crucially, true or false. Note that the last pair of evaluative terms necessarily applies to any science. Reality as pictured by physics is not normative; physics itself is normative, because the claims of physics are rightly evaluated as true or false.
A closing point: the criticisms of my statements posted above tend to include claims about what science is. First, I have not made claims about what science in general, Science, is. I have tried to restrict my claims to a few sciences, primarily physics, because it tends to be taken as the paradigm of Science. In fact, the idea that there is a single, unified thing called Science is one I resist. Second, claims about what science is or must be, or about what is necessary for something to count as science, are not scientific claims. In order for such claims to be scientific claims, they would have to be part of a science of Science. I, for one, know of no such science.
stephen i loved this statement of yours:
why bother asking questions that resist resolution when it should be just as easy, and more profitable in every way, to ask questions that are capable of resolution?
Stephan: You refer to ” the arc of scientific innovation extending from Copernicus to Newton”. I have plotted these things on graph paper and they do not form an “arc”. Second these men did not innovate. Newton neither created, nor discovered, nor improved gravity. Apples fell down before Newton lived and still fall down today. The stars at which Copernicus gazed orbited before and after he died.
Now you can attempt to build a religion or metaphysics out of their observations, although I for one have no intention of worshipping Apples.
Anyone who has examined the literature of Newton’s day or read the accounts of conversations knows that his proposition that: “if a vacuum were formed around the Leaning Tower of Pisa and a feather and a cannon ball were dropped at the same time, then both would hit the ground at the same time” — was hotly debated.
The most logical argument was that feathers are used in pillows and therefore governed by Hypnos while cannon balls are used in war and governed by Ares. Because Ares is greater than Hypnos, except when he sleeps, cannon balls always take precedence over feathers even in a vacuum. Others argued that all things die in a vacuum and therefore vacuums are ruled by Death. Because All are equal before Death, then Ares and Hypnos are equal in a vacuum and both the feather and cannon ball would hit the ground at the same time when governed by Death.
Others said Death is not Greek and that Hades, god of death, was merely one of the gods and that even he slept and therefore Hypnos was the greatest of the gods and that feathers would always hit the ground before cannon balls and didn’t do so because Hypnos was never in a hurry.
The Christians and Moslems took several learned positions in this debate none of which were the ones described. However they threatened to kill everyone who blasphemed.
Newton ignored this entire argument and, getting everything wrong (metaphysically), mumbled something about air.
Which is why metaphysics and science don’t mix and why science makes a very poor base for religion.
The day may come when the Leaning Tower of Pisa is encased in vacuum. But then, on that day, the gods may be dead.
Which gets back to Shannon’s question of measuring Crazy. Was Newton Crazy for arguing a feather and a cannon ball will fall at the same speed. Some of his contemporaries thought he was. Evidently “Crazy” is a metaphysical term not a scientific one.
“Stephan: You refer to ‘the arc of scientific innovation extending from Copernicus to Newton’. I have plotted these things on graph paper and they do not form an ‘arc’. Second these men did not innovate. Newton neither created, nor discovered, nor improved gravity. Apples fell down before Newton lived and still fall down today. The stars at which Copernicus gazed orbited before and after he died.
I meant my use of the term ‘arc’ to indicate a movement of scientific thought, one that I had supposed everyone accepted. Or do you deny that there is a significant historical connection between Copernicus and Newton?
I’m not at all sure what you mean in saying that Newton did not discover gravity. Perhaps you could explain?
I find your presentation of the arguments Newton encountered dubious. Did Leibnitz make any such arguments? He is the best known, and best regarded, contemporary critic of Newton. And did Christians really argue from what would appear to be pagan gods that the Pisa thought experiment you present had to go their way?
And, finally, I have to wonder. Did Newton use a tower in Pisa to present a thought experiment? This sounds like something Galileo would do, not Newton. I’ve looked over the excerpts from Newton I have handy, but those don’t by any means settle the question. Just wondering.
Actually, prior to Newton the reigning theory of falling held that different objects fell at different rates due to their differing compositions. People of the day, including Newton, thought all materials composed of earth, air, water and fire in differing ratios. They also believed that like-attracted-like. So, they thought that a stone fell faster than a feather because it contained more earth and was more strongly attracted to the ground than the feather which was more attracted to the the air.
Newton found that the same mathematics that accurately described the motion of the planets also described the motion of earthly objects which were largely unaffected by air resistance. Extrapolating from his mathematics, he deduced that a universal, constant force attracted all objects to all other objects. Analogizing to the way that a powerful and charismatic person attracts other humans, Newton named his hypothetical force gravity.
Interestingly enough, if you want to be a stickler about the technicalities, Newton was wrong about nearly everything related to gravity.
Newton did not discover gravity and Columbus did not discover America. There were several million people in America when Columbus got here; as far as Newton, everyone in the world was intimately familiar with gravity. As Shannon points out, Newton named it. But everybody lived with it.
Your argument condemns the system of developing knowledge through repeatable experiments because this technique cannot answer major questions such as the nature of God, Truth, etc. A body of knowledge as been developed by crafting carefully worded questions and then finding answers through experimental observation. And this body of knowledge has been used to build sound homes, reduce the incidence of infant mortality, eliminate hunger, extend life spans, eliminate plagues, and give us American Idol.
My argument is that when logic is divorced from experiment only fantasy results as can be seen from my Hellenic examples or Shannon’s example of like attracting like – fantasies which never improve the human condition and usually become so important that their believers become fanatics who increase human misery. Only scientific reasoning can improve the human condition.
Which brings us back to the issue of measuring Crazy. Too many claim the title of scientist who do not govern their professional actions by the rules of science. Ginny’s Melville quote from Billy Budd is right on target.
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