The Fourth Theorem of Curtis: Science can tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what ought to be.
In reference to The Third Theorem, we might say that facts are not future performance.
Problematically, we often expect facts to repeat; the dependability of a fact is its recurrence — the recurrence of a conglomerate of performances, of context — over time; and we are tempted always to believe that what has been will continue to be.
A dependable fact is dependable precisely because it repeats. It became a fact because it repeats; it could not have become a fact otherwise; and, because it has always repeated until the present, we have no counterfactual fact, or handy experience of its failure to repeat, and so we have nothing we might believe as an alternative to it. Under identical circumstances, or context, water will still boil at the same temperature; under different circumstances, it will not.
But our understandable expectation of a recurrence of fact is problematic because it creates a special bias: our normal everyday experience of regularity leads us to the temptation to define fact as future performance, or future context as present and past context, and present context as past context.1
Science, a Definition via Performativity
Science is the study of performances that is intended to expand qualitatively and quantitatively our available recognizable facts. Formal science, which self-identified scientists profess to practice, is the systematic accumulation of facts, of contexts. Informal science, practiced on a more regular basis by self-identified scientists and by all others in everyday life, is less systematic, a less conscious and less conscientious accumulation of facts, context.
Typically, a counterfactual is thought of as being any set of circumstances that have in no way actually occurred; they are termed “counterfactual” because they run counter to the set of circumstances that have occurred:
“If only it had not been raining, I would not have totaled my car.”
In the example above, we might be able to remember cases, experienced directly or experienced from reading accounts of circumstances, in which heavy rain was a part of a context in which a car collision occurred. We might be able to look back from immediately after this referenced car collision and recognize the fact that heavy rain was occurring when we totaled our car. We might be able to look back from this collision and remember our car hydroplaning just before the collision occurred. We might even be able to remember days when it was not raining in which we did not total our car. But these recognitions of past performances are recognition of separate contexts—involving many other distinct variables than rain or lack of rain, collision or lack of collision, and cars. We cannot look back from a collision that has just occurred and recognize an immediate past performance of this collision not occurring at a time when it was not raining. The counterfactual claim of fact, “If only it had not been raining, I would not have totaled my car,” may be an imaginary fact because it is a set of recognizable past performances, a context involving separate facts relating to different events; but these performances forming that set are not a past performance, or context, in toto. Even the imaginary set lacks the fact of this-car-at-this-time, not to mention other variables such as location of this collision, speed at this time of collision, driving surface on which this collision occurred, total weight of this car at this time (including fuel, passengers, items in the vehicle) and many others besides. Not to mention: this car has collided, and a collision is a complex performance of metal, rubber, glass, and perhaps a tree or some other object included in the collision.
Counterfactual claims are dreams of a different past performance than that performance actually witnessed, typically created either by stitching together other performances actually witnessed at different times in the past under different circumstances or removing from the context that actually occurred some key variable of that context—and probably, both.
However, if one has experience of removing a variable from a recognizable context or adding a variable to a recognizable context and discovering that a new context results, one may begin to develop a fact concerning the absence or existence of that variable. For instance, never having seen a stick of dynamite (or any other bomb) before (in one’s own immediate experience or in some other media such as a movie or via a book’s description or an acquaintance’s description, etc.), one would have no experience of what happens after one holds a fire source to the fuse. After holding fire to the fuse just once, on purpose or accidentally — and assuming one has for whatever reason moved far enough away from the new context — one might learn a new fact. One might even remember that fact in this context: “If only I had not lit that fuse, the dynamite would not have exploded when it did.”
A counterfactual claim is a claim founded upon a lack of understanding of the contexts involved, the actual resulting context (effects) and the preceding contexts (causes) which, taken together, are another, encompassing context.
Moreover, counterfactual claims are typically thought of as those in which complex sets of variables are considered only through the addition or subtraction of one variable which is claimed to be key in determining that overall cause-effect chain of events—especially, also, when that single variable, considered to the exclusion of multiple other variables, is itself dimly understood in relation to those other variables. E.g., after a divorce: “If only I hadn’t married Amy 20 years ago, I wouldn’t be broke now!”
Finally, counterfactual claims also may be those in which a key variable is out of the speaker’s control or beyond his range of influence. “If only it hadn’t been raining…” may indeed signal a key variable in a car collision if hydroplaning was involved in that collision; but having been able to halt the rain in order to change the context that later occurred (the collision) does not describe the person making the claim. He could have said, “If only I had stayed in bed this morning, my car wouldn’t be totaled now.” (This of course assumes that no one else would have borrowed the car that day; also, that he or someone else hadn’t already paid someone to come by and total his car if they saw it still sitting in his drive that morning.)
One might be tempted to label the results of new “different circumstances” that actually occur as a counterfactual fact to some remembered facts when they occur, when these two sets seem to contradict. I.e., something unexpected and never before experienced has happened. Having no experience of them, no facts about them, the unexpected events are “counter-factual” in the sense that they run quite contrary to any imaginable set of performances, or to anything one has experienced in the past. But they are different circumstances, a set of performances — a context — that is different from another set, or context, by the addition or subtraction of variables. An entirely new context is impossible. For one, the witness to any such context is the same witness to the past contexts that he has witnessed; i.e., he himself, at least, prevents the new context from being “entirely new,” because he is a variable within the new context just as he was a variable in those prior contexts. In all likelihood, certain familiar laws of physics, familiar materials, and so forth will also prevent the new context from being “entirely” new. However, to the extent that any set of variables considered as a whole may be considered a context, one set may be different from another set. If sets of variables previously witnessed become facts in themselves — a past performance that has repeated; these variables have always occurred together — then a new set may be thought of as a new potential fact in itself and may be unexpected.
Formal science in particular may use counterfactual thinking by imagining a different context to a previously experienced conglomerate of performances, applying the variable or variables that make the difference (conducting an experiment) and looking at the results.2 These new “different circumstances,” in turn become new facts in themselves when they repeat. Importantly, such new experience also creates an additional new fact that is the conjunction, or co-incidence, of the “old circumstances” and the “new circumstances” within the mind of the observer. This is a process of dialectic, broadly considered; but, this process is also related to the operation of performativity, insofar as the old and the new sets of circumstances themselves become re-defined in relation to one another:
- First: “Water begins to boil at 100°C.”
- Then, after subjecting the water to greater pressure: “This water began to boil at 114°C”.
- So: “Water begins to boil at 100°C at 14.69 psi.” & “At 24 psi, water begins to boil at 114°C.”
- And, “Water under different pressures begins to boil at different temperatures.”
It should be noted that the second experience of a performance listed above, water beginning to boil at 114°C, might at the time of its being observed seem counter-factual to the original fact of water beginning to boil at 100°C; but these two facts are not counterfactuals, merely different sets of performances, different contexts, different facts. In combination, the first and the second contexts may lead to the creation of another new fact, the fourth bullet point listed above. In formal practice, this process might require multiple other contexts in comparison for isolating the variable of pressure while eliminating other variables like the purity of the water being boiled.
Under the heading formal science should be included: Poll-watching intended to inform an assessment of the effectiveness of messaging (politicians, political strategists); bottom-line-watching intended to inform advertising campaigns, product desirability, and business practices (business strategists, CEOs, Mad Men); materials-watching intended to inform the assessment of construction, fabrication, and growing techniques (tradespersons, engineers, construction workers, farmers); and so forth—in addition to the normal characterization of formal sciences. Any individual may utilize formal science when a conscientious, conscious effort is made to assess a situation with the intent of informing responses and attempting to accomplish a goal. (This does not mean that the practice of formal science is always felicitous; i.e., that those practicing it are proficient observers and assessors.) In all examples of the practice of formal science, counterfactual thinking may play a positive, felicitous role.
Informal science also uses counterfactual thinking, but less conscientiously, less consciously.
Young children who experiment upon one another with performativity, attempting to add or withhold context to the context that will be viewed by their targets — lying, manipulation — play with counterfactual thinking as an experiment to discern the sort of mischief they may cause without suffering undesirable repercussions — but this play is preparatory for the life ahead. In their play, young children may not have a conscious goal in mind but approach their experimentation with performativity with a “Let’s see what happens” attitude. They have in memory some object or behavior; now, they want to apply it to this context because they have never seen it in this context. They are attempting to discover a process, to discover the operation of performativity itself, as well as discovering the bounds of any given type of performance. They are learning that they, too, are performers and that others may be audiences who re-act to their performances. Later in life, they will have a chance to apply their discoveries systematically. (In learning to discern the operation of performativity itself, they may also be learning how to formalize their approach, or learning how to use science conscientiously.)
Young adults might use the same approach when trying new experiences for the first time, e.g. going to a bar or dance club or going skydiving. Anyone of any age may engage with life similarly. A search for “new experiences” is a search for new performances, for new sets of circumstances, by adding different variables. New facts may be learned along the way, but the search for new experience is not always a fully conscious, systematic attempt to discover new facts. (It may be, however.)
Indeed, one need not consciously seek new experiences. A dynamic world often offers up new experiences, new performances for viewing, without being asked to do so. New facts may be acquired along the way.
In informal science, counterfactual thinking, rather than being a process consciously utilized for discovery of new contexts or new facts, might happen in the negative: cognitive disjunction, confusion, terror, and so forth may result in the belief and/or from the belief in “counterfactual facts,” a world that makes no logical sense. The acceptance (creation) of a “new fact” that remains largely disjunct from all hitherto experienced performances or from all prior facts (an imaginary fact) may be an attempt to reify an unexpected and recently experienced performance, an attempt to give the new experience a place within one’s existing narrative of the world or at least to allow it the possibility of belonging within that narrative, by disposing of dimly understood variables, confusing and complex sets of variables, or uncontrollable variables.
Formal science assumes the existence of “the hidden” as an explanation for the disjunction of observations and conscientiously attempts to bring the hidden into view by use of varying contexts and careful observation of varying contexts. Informal science may or may not assume the existence of the hidden but experiences the hidden primarily through disjunction and, occasionally, through serendipitous epiphany. The phrase “the hidden” should be understood as “the unobserved” — unobserved performances which, should they become observed, might become new facts if they repeat.
The informal scientist — by which I mean, all of us, when not engaging in formal science — may become suddenly aware of The Hidden through the negative, that is through an observation of a disjunction between performances — this alone might be the serendipitous epiphany — and then attempt a systematic exploration of that disjunction, or engage in a formal scientific approach to discover the boundaries of The Hidden in order to give The Hidden definition and a place within an existing narrative. (Again, the formal scientific approach may or may not be felicitous; the approach may or may not be what is typically called “successful.”)
Problematically, our view of any given context is limited. Our capacity for observation is limited. As I wrote at the end of my exploration of The Third Theorem of Curtis,
We humans have severe limitations on our observational capability, on our ability to witness all the details of any given conglomerate of performances. Far from missing the forest for the trees, or the trees for the forest, we typically don’t see the cells of the trees, the atoms of the cells, or the giant asteroid about to hit the forest.
I have previously diagrammed this dilemma by making use of a term now in vogue, transparency:
—while adding the note, this diagram is not drawn to scale.3
We do not have access to The Hidden in toto or en masse, even should we look for it with every available faculty or in all conscientiousness.
Fortuitously, we see far more than we think we see. We see the forest even if we do not directly see the individual cells of the trees; and in seeing the forest, we are seeing at least some of the trees, some of the cells of some of those trees—just not up close or individually.4 A walk in the backyard does not seem to require a direct observation of the molecular composition of rocks (e.g., electrons flitting about) and the photosynthesis of grass. Molecular composition and biochemical processes may indeed be a part of the context of any witnessed performances during our walk outdoors even if we do not see them or need to see them separate from what we call their “effects.” Alternatively, we might say that these processes and subatomic particles, these performances, are observed indirectly. To the degree that these other objects and processes may be witnessed in their effects, we might say we do see them—in the same way that our seeing any object is merely seeing the visible light reflected off that object, not the object itself. Furthermore, we do not see the infrared or other non-visible wavelengths of light reflecting from seen objects or being produced by those objects, but this does not mean that we are not observing those objects when we view whatever reflections of light we may view. We may see a mountain in the distance without seeing the other side of that mountain.
A “conglomerate of performances,” or a context, as I have been using the term, might be understood in one of two ways.
The context may be thought of as existing apart from or regardless of our observation, in which case the conglomerate of performances are, with reference to any given human, a conglomerate of potential performances (for us).5 The Hidden is there within the context even if no one is around to attempt an observation; The Hidden is there even if someone is around to attempt an observation of it.
Alternatively, we may think of the context requiring a human observer. In the way that a tree falling unobserved may cause vibrations through the air and earth — we assume — but no sound without an observer’s brain to interpret those vibrations as sound, the conglomerate of performances in this case, or context, does not come into being at all until a mind has witnessed it via sensory perception. Context in this sense would be a human creation within the mind, performance requiring a human audience in order to be a performance.
The asymmetrical relationship between the one context and the other, between the non-human-created context and the human-conceived or human-perceived context, may be considered a driving factor for all human science, human art, human religion, and more besides.
There are things known and things unknown and in between are the Doors.
Regardless, a fact is mere interpretation of witnessed recurring performances—“fact is past performance,” a human construction.
Consequently, our facts are limited to our observations. Definitionally, any given fact is incomplete with reference to the available context or to the context in which it regularly appears. When we say, “Water begins to boil at 100°C,” this may indeed be one of our facts, but a) the statement of fact is incomplete because we have not added to it references to the entire context in which it presents — pressure, for instance — and b) even given an understanding of multiple influences upon the water, or a complex context in which the statement of fact has hitherto proven true and which we understand to lie behind the simplified statement that “Water begins to boil at 100°C,” we cannot know whether some additional variables have hitherto been hidden from our view and remain hidden from view;—
No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.
Through repetitive experimentation, or repetitive observations, we risk assuming that all that was once hidden, relative to any fact, has been discovered. Even if it has been, how can we know that it has for certainty; and, does the question of our knowing or not-knowing the full context of any given performance matter if our human context, or relationship to the fact, does not alter significantly—if, that is, our accepted facts recur? 7
The Matter of Hearsay; or, Journalists, Gossips, and Experts
One may take as fact what one has not directly observed. For instance, I have not run experiments on the boiling point of water, and yet I have chosen to accept as fact the idea that water begins to boil at different temperatures under different pressures. The Einstein quote given above may be a paraphrase, after all, of similar ideas he actually expressed, rather than a direct quote; in any case, I was not around to hear it from his lips.
- No single human being may witness all that is available to be witnessed. Not only are his perceptual faculties for observation limited, but he is prevented by time and space from observing all that may be observed. Not every human can spend decades studying astrophysics, microbiology, metallurgy, the dynamics of culture and government in Iran and Zambia (nor, the languages), and so forth—each. We have come to rely on second-hand reporting—as if others could become our eyes and ears in places and times we may not visit, studying the things we do not know how to observe ourselves or may not observe because of the limits of time and space and a human life.8
- Hearsay considered alone is a different conglomerate performance than the conglomerate performance being reported. The person relating events or describing processes and objects that he has witnessed informally as a matter of course or formally through experimentation—describing his facts—saw one performance or multiple performances in the past; the person now listening to him relate his previous experience is witnessing a different performance in his speech, physical behaviors, his art, his writing.
- Our observation of performances is typically indirect anyway. We do not see objects but the light reflecting off from objects and/or given off from objects; we do not hear objects falling so much as we hear the vibrations of air that have reached our eardrums. Are those persons who report their own facts (past experience) merely another medium through which we observe those experiences that are distant in time and space from us?
Concerning the last bullet point, what seems clear to most who conscientiously consider the value of hearsay as a medium of experience: One’s own eyeballs and eardrums and other sensory faculties are often more dependable when receiving stimulation within a short time frame and within a small space relative to initial events than when receiving stimulation more distant in time and space from those same events. That is, most have had the experience of hearing facts related to them “after-the-fact” — distant in time and space from an initial event — which do not match up with the facts they themselves remember of the same event, themselves having been present at that event.
Concerning the second bullet point: Having been in the position of weighing one’s own memory of observation of an event against the report another gives of that event “after-the-fact,” most who conscientiously consider the value of hearsay will have experienced being in error and will at least entertain the possibility that hearsay may have some positive value as a medium of experience. Additionally, most will have experience of coming to experience events for the first time after similar events have first been described to them; i.e., of verification of reported facts. That is, we learn that other human beings exist who have faculties of observation and memory that may sometimes surpass our own relative to given events. A current performance—the sights and sounds and so forth of a person relating his past experience—may, therefore, relate a distant event or a conglomerate of past performances, a distant context, in a dependable way.
Between knowing and not-knowing may be Doors; another human being may be a medium of experience for us while creating a new performance or experience for us; or, may open up a doorway to a past event to allow observation of that event. But then again, most humans have experienced false reports, inaccurate reports, lies, and so forth in hearsay. Over time, individuals accumulate facts about other individuals and, importantly, facts about a range of performances other individuals may produce, in order to be better able to judge what persons may be dependable—what types of reports may be dependable and what types may not, what may be regarded as factual and what may not.9
As a medium of experience contrasted with what has inaptly been called “direct experience,” hearsay requires conscientious and conscious interpretation far more complex than normal sensory perception; or, translation:
translate (v.)c.1300, “to remove from one place to another,” also “to turn from one language to another,” from Latin translatus “carried over,” serving as past participle of transferre “to bring over, carry over” (see transfer), from trans- (see trans-) + latus “borne, carried.”
Initial observations of performances may themselves be limited by the human faculties and by time and space—context may be poorly observed. The vessel carrying these initial observations, the memory, may be a poor vessel. The faculties enabling conscious performance intended to relate these memories to another may be limited—not least by audience members whose own observation of this reporter’s performance will be limited and whose memory of contexts similar to those being reported may be limited. As already described, statements of fact are surely to be limited, either because they are short-hand for the full context that was observed or because the reporter failed to observe the available context in full—and probably, both.10
Concerning the first bullet point: If we have a need for other “eyes and ears” because of inherent limitation, that same limitation impedes verification of those reports. Formal scientists and informal scientists alike may accept peer review as a form of verification—but peer review is merely more reporting, more hearsay, regardless of whether it receives the approbation, consensus. Because personal verification (validation) of reported events in these cases is ipso facto impossible unless the audience member to hearsay makes the attempt to travel, study, experiment — seek out confirmatory performances — in order to enable himself to personally verify reports by removing his limitation, the result of relying on journalists, gossips, experts and so forth is an increase in the importance assigned to aggregating facts about the persons making the reports and about their methods of reporting. That is, because of the impossibility of personally verifying the performances being reported, an audience to the report will focus on the performance of the report and their accepted facts about the reporter.11
However, when all is said and done, the intrinsic insufficiency of reporting, of statements of fact—a trending toward generalization—may nonetheless create anchors of understanding that will also be similarly limited but provide footholds. Our own individual experiences, or collection of facts, also generalized, may find something in the reporting that is useful, that fits within our personal narrative. Confirmation bias may be a result; but reports of distant events, when they have no immediate bearing on local and present events, may not require adept reaction from the audience members hearing those reports; and, whatever does have immediate bearing ipso facto also coincides with other immediate, or near-by, performances, and thus the potential for personal verification of those particular data points exists—or, the potential for invalidation.12
Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Divinity School Address
However, a potential for verification of reported facts does not always translate into a formal scientific attempt at verification nor a serendipitous informal scientific verification; confirmation bias, as a method of research and/or discovery, is neither research nor discovery but reiteration.
The Fourth Theorem: Three Asses and a Hume
Science can tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what ought to be.
This theorem is relatively simple on its face but rather complicated in practice. Science, as a search for knowledge and understanding via an expansion of available facts, might give us new methods of influencing future events, a kind of expanded control via influence; but, it cannot tell us what ought to be, or, that is, what to do with what we have learned.
My most recent occasion for applying the Fourth Theorem occurred in response to an opinion piece at The Futurist written by Michael Lee called “The Sunset of the Alchemy of Uncertainty.” Michael Lee expressed what I think is an unfortunate dichotomy, an infelicitous statement of fact, by comparing science with ideology:
While the scientific method and the application of scientific knowledge in fields like engineering, medicine and business have produced technological, industrial and social progress, ideology, by contrast, has always led to war. Think of the religious wars in pre-modern Europe. Think of the destruction caused by the conflicts between the competing ideologies of communism, fascism and capitalism throughout the previous century. Think of today’s a-symmetric war between the West and radical Islam. Ideology is a force keeping civilization in a mind-set of inflated philosophical pretensions. Unless kept in check, ideology is inherently conflictual and should perhaps be consigned to the private sphere of life where it can be practised safely. Furthermore, it creates bias and blind-spots in thinking when we view social problems.
Ideology is a great pastime for individuals but history has proven it to be a lethal social virus at the state level. Can we please finally get it that there is freedom of belief in this world and that to try to systematically impose beliefs on others at the national or international level is chasing an impossible dream?
We live on an extraordinary earth but its future is being seriously endangered by this misguided and mischievous machismo politics of medieval-style ideology-mongering. The thought-police of political correctness should also take a very long holiday. What we need is the clarity, truth and common-sense of a scientific approach to our future. The beauty of science lies in its pure commitment to truth, the proven laws of our wondrous world. The power of science lies in its freedom from ideology in dealing with problems and in looking for solutions.
Until the last sentence of this excerpt, I found myself somewhat in agreement with the general gist of his argument even if not in all particulars. Ideology, as a unified narrative of accumulated facts, is probably always limited—for reasons already expressed in this blog post. The application of an ideology in managing world affairs by universalizing it, or by assuming that the contexts under which it took form will repeat everywhere always exactly the same…is problematic. But then Michael Lee suggested that science, free from ideology, will be ideal for “dealing with problems” and “in looking for solutions.” Looking for solutions, yes, that is the hope. Dealing with problems? No.
I took from Michael Lee’s concept of “dealing” an assumption of action, of response to findings; because he said that science may do this “free from ideology,” I took his finding of fact to mean that he believes science alone can tell us what to do if only we will forego bothering about ideology. He had already given a laundry list of problems besides war that science may solve on its own:
Society today, faced with global scale problems like climate change, environmental degradation, depletion of natural resources, Peak Oil and the new slave trade of human trafficking, can ill-afford much more of this deconstructionist post-modernism. The world was so thoroughly deconstructed in the twentieth century – ethically, socially, philosophically and politically – that it’s just about ready to collapse altogether.
He did, however, modify what he had written in the piece when he responded to a comment I left under the piece. I commented:
Science can tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what ought to be. That is, science alone cannot tell us what to do with the things we learn via science. Any application of scientific knowledge requires an ideology. The difference seems to be in whether those who utilize scientific knowledge are aware of this fact or operate from an ignorance of this fact (for whatever reason.)
Good point, Curtis. We need some general philosophical and logical principles to guide the application of scientific knowledge, but, respectfully, we don’t need doctrinal ideologies which are always divisive.
I did not comment further on his blog, although I might have been mischievous in rebuttal by asking via another comment whether “doctrinal ideologies which are always unifying” would be best, or even whether “doctrinal ideologies which are less divisive” would suffice.
I do not want to mischaracterize Michael Lee’s opinion piece. I find ironic the fact that he responded to my comment which had the title, “Is/Ought,” with studied agreement; earlier in the piece, he had attacked Hume as a skeptical precursor of his reviled post-modernists. But alas, I would agree with him that skepticism can be transformed into a doctrinal ideology, an extreme universalized ideology of uncertainty, and so be limited, infelicitous—unfortunate. It is primarily this weighting of skepticism that Lee attacks in the piece, not ideology per se: “In my view, the scale of uncertainty in our world has been misconceived.”
But in his limited approach, Michael Lee has fallen into his own trap by presenting an opposing universalized ideology. He has sown the seeds of a conflict, an intellectual casus belli, while attacking ideology in general as a distracting conflict-producing impediment to the wonders that science might work.
His apparent ideology is not original to him. Scientists, when they express an agenda, often have a blind spot that leads them to assume many things that science cannot prove—also, and in particular, that science alone can guide us into the future. I alluded to this common error at the end of my comment to Michael Lee. A faith in the recurrence of fact becomes a faith in future action — as Michael Lee stresses strongly in his opinion piece, certainty is a certain benefactor and, according to him, the only benefactor —, so that fact becomes future performance rather than mere past performance.
“If I heat this water to 100°C at 14.69 psi and control for all other variables, it ought to begin boiling.”
—there is a moral statement, if one likes; and a robust lifetime experience of verification of facts through experimentation may lead one to create a system of morality founded upon a faith in the recurrence of fact; but one might also add: These facts are quite conditional. (Which is to say, context-dependent.) These facts also do not tell the scientist whether he ought to make the experiment or no, in the first place, never mind the conditions under which water will begin to boil at 100°C.
A scientist may engage in counterfactual thinking when constructing an experiment, an opportunity for discovery of The Hidden, but until he makes that discovery, The Hidden remains hidden. Choosing via science alone between a present context and a future context to be created, for a purpose other than discovery of The Hidden, would put the scientist in the position of Buridan’s Ass.
The scientist as Buridan’s Ass: All his available facts are past performances; he has a range of expected results which are ipso facto past results previously experienced, depending upon changes in context, changes in variables; and any one of them might be repeated as facts are wont to repeat, depending upon how the context is changed. None of this tells him how the context ought to be changed: they are equal possibilities to the degree that they are all possible.13 A scientist put in charge of determining a future to be created, relying on science alone, would be incapable of picking one future out of a range of potential choices.14
Balaam’s Ass seemed to know what to do, even if Balaam did not or had other plans—surprising Balaam in the process.
Without first requiring a lengthy exegesis concerning Balaam’s Ass, we might take from the report of this event, however literal or figurative, an intended implication that an extra-sensory variable ought to be considered when weighing options for what to do in the future. We might apply this implication here. The solution to the scientific problem of that other ass, Buridan’s Ass — of weighing equally possible futures — may be the existence of some variable outside or preceding the process of science and the effects of scientific processes, a preexisting determinant which aids us in choosing one possible future over another.
Attempts to describe this extra-scientific determinant have suggested various preconditions, from biological imperatives hardwired into our genes and brains to the fuzzier moral imperatives (which may or may not also be biological in origin), to more rarefied categorical imperatives a la Kant. Nomological determinism and theistic predestination have been used as “solutions” to the problem of solving Hume’s Guillotine. Nietzsche thought humans bridged Is/Ought with a Will to Power—a vague, perhaps overly broad solution to the problem; he also gave many pages to describing socially constructed oughts in his attacks on prevalent morality. Plato seems to have hit on an extremely odd response to the problem between Is and Ought when he suggested that all knowledge is known by the person before birth and is merely recollected or remembered during life: As a consequence, we already have a memory of beauty, virtue, etc., locked in our subconscious and come to recognize it later, saving science the problem of inventing an Ought.
Whatever extra-scientific determinant or determinants exist, the questions arise: To what degree do these determinants prefigure, inform, and/or generally influence our science? If these extra-scientific determinants have any effect on our science, do they affect merely how we utilize science — i.e., enable and influence action based upon our accumulation of facts — or do they also affect how we do science, that is, how we observe and accumulate facts in the first place? To what degree do they influence our performance; i.e., our statements of fact, our attempts to offer our own facts for the edification or entertainment of others, to influence others?
I wave a peace flag to Michael Lee because I use the term and concept of ideology more broadly than most. The ideologies he attacked in his opinion piece are doctrinal in nature; I view them as attempts to codify systems of morality—or, of imperatives. Per the discussion immediately above, concerning extra-scientific imperatives, these ideologies to me represent established methods of attempting to meet the requirements of those original imperatives: The ought of an established ideology, for example a sect of Christianity, has its origins in some more basic imperatives but, having been established over centuries, the doctrinaire ideology has transferred over time those original oughts into judgments on types of behavior, into short-hand, simplified statements of doctrinaire fact in the form of abstract concepts. (Charity, Love, Piety, and so forth.) Henceforth, these doctrinaire facts serve as a mask for the original imperatives, even if not intended as masks. In themselves, these are new oughts: As per my comments above concerning our faculties of observation and the effects of hearsay, these doctrinaire oughts may not be exact translations of the original imperatives that were only vaguely guessed or observed to exist — may indeed be quite detached from those original observations — but this does not mean that the original imperatives have somehow disappeared and are no longer in effect.15
The same may be said of any ideology, any system of facts codified internally—including, scientific facts and dim impressions of the effects of some original imperatives. One takes as a given that we must preserve the human species; one takes as a given — given through formal scientific processes — that the climate is warming due to human activity; one takes as a given that species and civilizations may be destroyed by extreme climate change (again, given through formal scientific study of past examples of such destruction); therefore, one takes as a given that something ought to be done to reverse the effects of the human-caused climate change now occurring. A Green Movement is born that has an established narrative which includes how climate change is occurring, in specifics; how those specifics can be traced to certain big industries; and how those industries must be changed, “improved” or eliminated. Another individual or group of individuals come along that have made connections leading to a similar ought: certain industries must be eliminated—because those industries are rolling in wealth while others struggle to stay afloat. These groups attach themselves to one another; “Hey, maybe they are destroying the environment too!” say those in the second group. But the original imperative of both may have been the Will to Power of each member; or, sheepishness, a sheep feeling threatened, needing a larger herd in order to feel protected via strength in numbers, and anti-industry serves as an excuse; or, merely a strong need for self-preservation; or, who knows, maybe the will of God acting through so many individuals.
Science may expand our available options for altering contexts—for acting—through the accumulation of facts about our context, our world; but it also serves us by limiting our choices through elimination of fanciful, counterfactual ideas about the world. This is the role science has to play. Its role is not to decide for us what we ought to do—except insofar as we can weigh our accumulation of facts against our given imperatives and eliminate options counter to those.16
1 Tangentially, see also: Nietzsche’s “The Four Great Errors” from Twilight of the Idols. Also, see Nietzsche’s description of the origins of punishment in On the Genealogy of Morals, 2nd essay, section 13, in which he says
To return to our subject, namely punishment, one must distinguish two aspects: on the one hand, that in it which is relatively enduring, the custom, the act, the “drama,” a certain strict sequence of procedures; on the other, that in it which is fluid, the meaning, the purpose, the expectation associated with the performance of such procedures….the procedure itself will be something older, earlier than its employment in punishment,…the latter is projected and interpreted into the procedure….in short, that the case is not as has hitherto been assumed by our naïve genealogists of law and morals, who have one and all thought of the procedure as invented for the purpose of punishing, just as one formerly thought of the hand as invented for the purpose of grasping.
He then explored a multitude of meanings of punishment which, over time, have been adopted (as the purposes of punishment) and which have been interpreted into the procedure as if they were the original causes for the existence of the procedure, or performances, of punishment. A case of latter intended effects of punishment coming to be interpreted as the causes of the procedure; e.g., “These acts of punishment were invented in order to ______________, or for the purposes of ______________.” This is related to the Four Great Errors outlined later in Twilight of the Idols, particularly “The error of confusing cause and effect.”
2 See: The Second Theorem of Curtis linked above for a look at control groups and (competing) influences upon a context.
3 Importantly, the diagram as such also may mislead and/or abet a common misconception: We ourselves are actually in the universe, not separate from it looking at it. See also: Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, #346:
The whole pose of “man against the world,” of man as a “world-negating” principle, of man as the measure of the value of things, as judge of the world who in the end places existence itself upon his scales and finds it wanting—the monstrous insipidity of this pose has finally come home to us and we are sick of it. We laugh as soon as we encounter the juxtaposition of “man and world,” separated by the sublime presumption of the little word “and.”
4 Here I will not quibble over the fact that we are merely seeing the light reflected from so many trees, and perhaps hearing only the vibrations in the air caused by wind rustling leaves, and whether a tree falling unobserved in the forest makes a sound—but these are important to note.
5 It is possible to conceive of non-human objects being “observers” to performances. Action-reaction; the effects of gravity between any two objects; etc. So it is possible to conceive of these interactions as performances happening — performer and audience, audience re-acting and performer becoming audience in turn — even if no human is present to observe them.
6 It was most likely Ray Manzarek, co-founder of The Doors, who said it, although others preceded him in expressing a similar metaphor and idea; see The Quote Investigator website exploration.
7 This question, incidentally, may relate to both, the Brain in a Vat question and the Anthropic Principle.
8 I have touched upon this before, suggesting that the Question of Our Time will relate to this issue of limited observational & effective capacity + a need to delegate authority conscientiously. What I have not yet written but intend to write one day is the consequence of a) this necessity in collusion with b) its initial circumstances—a futurist dream or speculation perhaps, relating to technological developments and our “foreign eyes and ears” system of orientation. No doubt, the subject of performativity will play a role in any future exploration of these ideas. I have put off writing this exploration for different reasons, but not least among them is a disquiet re: the implications.
9 Judging of the performances that other humans create is a very fertile subject, an immensely important topic, that could fill libraries. Here I would mention formal writing styles like those used to create academic papers, for example APA Style: perhaps useful for all who might come afterward seeking sources for verification of each important point made in a research paper, but then again presenting an aura of authenticity—that is, of authorial, or even authorized, legitimacy. Of all those who may read any given paper written in APA Style, how many will actually seek out the source of every citation, read the source in full, and compare or contrast all and sundry while comparing all and sundry with one’s own immediate observations, experiments, and past observations, conscientiously? No doubt, conscientious explorers will do so in full—assuming of course that every cited source does not similarly cite a plethora of sources, leading to an unending search for verification or context—but many others will not. The word glamour, meant as a magical effect or charm one person (or demon) placed upon another, descends from the Latin for grammar; in Medieval Europe, the commoner would hear Latin being spoken and it would seem as if magic were being cast or a supernatural element was at play—note also that the Catholic Church utilized Latin for a purpose….Abracadabra indeed. But then humans have learned how to lie effectively by being authentic.
10 In a blog post titled, “Look Away—If You Can,” I excerpted a portion of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, #354, in which he appears to have given a consideration of the origins of performativity without using that term or the specific concept of performativity. In that section, he proposes the origin of consciousness also: Developing hand-in-hand with language, consciousness emerged from social need, a “social construct” but not in the normal sense: Not an agreed-upon model created by social contract but rather an emergent condition springing from the need early humans had for interacting with one another for their individual survival. Consequently, language is bare-bones and consciousness also is bare-bones; our conscious thinking follows our language, and vice versa, and both are limited by what we have found necessary for interacting positively with one another for our individual survival:
My idea is, as you see, that consciousness does not really belong to man’s individual existence but rather to his social or herd nature; that, as follows from this, it has developed subtlety only insofar as this is required by social or herd utility. Consequently, given the best will in the world to understand ourselves as individually as possible, “to know ourselves,” each of us will always succeed in becoming conscious only of what is not individual but “average.” Our thoughts themselves are continually governed by the character of consciousness—by the “genius of the species” that commands it—and translated back into the perspective of the herd. Fundamentally, all our actions are altogether incomparably personal, unique, and infinitely individual; there is no doubt of that. But as soon as we translate them into consciousness they no longer seem to be.
This is the essence of phenomenalism and perspectivism as I understand them: Owing to the nature of animal consciousness, the world of which we can become conscious is only a surface- and sign-world, a world that is made common and meaner; whatever becomes conscious becomes by the same token shallow, thin, relatively stupid, general, sign, herd signal; all becoming conscious involves a great and thorough corruption, falsification, reduction to superficialities, and generalization.
—One need not go so far as Nietzsche in labeling all consciousness as so mean, so limited, nor in labeling all observation a mere reaction to a predetermining social need, while recognizing that observation and consciousness often are limited, or that they trend toward the average, especially when the attempt is conceived, to communicate what one has observed for another’s edification.
11 For those familiar with the concept of 4GW, or the fourth-generation of warfare or the fourth-gradient of warfare…Well, this issue may relate but I will not expound upon that here. A broader look would focus on our current “infosphere,” i.e., on the state of our modern world in all its complexity and interrelations, and might spot the many ways that this issue now presents.
12 When Montaigne wrote the following, he may have had some inkling of this distinction between the near and far, and our response to either:
I am of Sulla’s opinion; when I scrutinize closely the most glorious exploits of war, I see, it seems to me, that those who conduct them make use of deliberation and counsel only for form; they abandon the better part of the enterprise to Fortune, and, in the confidence they have in her help, go beyond the limits of all reason at every turn.
[in Various Outcomes of the Same Plan]
13 Example. When Michael Lee mentions in his piece climate change as an issue that science might resolve, he failed to mention the assumption behind his example, that we ought to solve or deal with climate change. A conscientious discovery of the Earth’s past might reveal the fact that many, many species have gone extinct over the lifetime of the planet due to climate change, or that various civilizations have disappeared over time as a result of climate change; discovery might reveal that changes to the climate have helped to benefit a species or civilization, or by extension have prevented extinction of either due to disadvantageous climate change which could have been the alternative. How is it that science, telling us these potential effects of changes in context, simultaneously also tells us that we ought not allow or hasten our own extinction or our civilization’s collapse due to climate change?
14 Typically, the concept of Buridan’s Ass is used as a thought experiment concerning the existence or lack thereof of free will. I am not using it for that here—important note. However, what I have written here could be extended into a much lengthier consideration involving the concept of free will.
15 Really, I know I may seem to be paraphrasing Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals here, among his other works. I would however point a finger back at an included Emerson quote: “Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.” But then one does not often understand the true force of performativity—of the power and dimensions of influence. Ironically, this footnote leads back to a consideration of the effects of translation and hearsay…
16 I have studiously avoided delimiting and defining with specificity what these imperatives are. Suck it.