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Author Topic:   Stephen Jay Gould: The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox
MrHambre
Member (Idle past 330 days)
Posts: 1495
From: Framingham, MA, USA
Joined: 06-23-2003


Message 1 of 92 (759417)
06-11-2015 9:22 AM


I’ve been reading Gould’s last book, published after his death in 2002. The subtitle is Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities, which lays out the thesis of the work. Gould argues that the propaganda of the “science wars” has created the false impression that science is pitted against the humanities in eternal struggle, and describes a program to reconceptualize the relation between the two. The similar effort of E. O. Wilson (in his book Consilience) to do the same, Gould says, is exactly the sort of reductionist saber-rattling that perpetuates the science-vs.-humanities myth. Gould uses the metaphors of the fox and the hedgehog to describe approaches to human problem-solving. The fox has many tricks and can judge which strategy fits each situation; the hedgehog has one trick that has served it well throughout its history. The secret is to know which approach applies, flexibility or tenacity.

Gould is skeptical of our tendency toward dichotomization in the way we approach these matters. The science-vs.-religion canard is one that sells books and chews up bandwidth on message boards, but doesn’t hold up to historical scrutiny. In fact, the fiercest battles the new researchers fought in the Scientific Revolution were not against the Church but against the entrenched Renaissance humanism that valued recovery of ancient lore from Aristotle and Pliny more than discovery through empirical research. After the dust had settled from the Ancients-vs.-Moderns dispute, however, the scientific industry created a secular mythology that persists to this day:

quote:
Scientists have tended to depict their own history as a steady march to truth, mediated by successful application of a universal and unchanging “scientific method” that only requires time to clear away the encumbering myths of a “bad old” past bound by strictures of theology or some other social impediment, and to accumulate the empirical data required to validate nature’s true modes of operation. (p. 114)

The problem with this myth-making is that it not only oversimplifies a complicated cultural phenomenon, but also privileges scientific inquiry above all other areas of human creativity. This privilege reinforces a philistinism that is incompatible with the skepticism that fuels scientific inquiry. Gould describes the way Cornell’s founder Andrew Dickson White created the myth that the Church had everyone in medieval Europe believing that the Earth is flat. More recently, the Sokal Hoax validated scientists’ condescension toward philosophy and “science studies.” (The scientific community’s triumphalism continues in the anti-humanistic pronouncements of science cheerleaders like Lawrence Krauss, who never passes up an opportunity to deride philosophy or to insult Gould himself even a decade after the man’s death.) E. O. Wilson’s misguided attempt at reconciling science and the humanities typifies this idealized notion of the scientific method, and involves subjecting every field of human endeavor to empirical study. Gould points out that this strategy doesn’t solve the problem of the naturalistic fallacy (in which what is can’t tell us what ought), it merely ignores it. Gould’s strategy involves understanding the strengths and limitations of all human creative endeavors, rather than making a Linnaean hierarchy of them. He quotes author and naturalist Vladimir Nabokov: “There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts.”

Gould’s writing, as always, is superb. The strength of his vocabulary, and the wit and clarity of his prose, is simply a pleasure to experience. The complexity of his writing (with its literary and pop culture allusions) always matched that of his material. He wasn’t only a paleontologist but also a historiographer of science, and he never reduced this approach to the series-of-celebrity-scientists narrative so common in pop science writing. To Gould, there was no way to understand the history of nature without also studying the nature of history.


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MrHambre
Member (Idle past 330 days)
Posts: 1495
From: Framingham, MA, USA
Joined: 06-23-2003


Message 3 of 92 (759502)
06-12-2015 8:44 AM
Reply to: Message 2 by RAZD
06-11-2015 10:56 AM


the consilence of information from different sources coming together in a way that reinforces each approach ... be it scientific or humanities.

As Gould describes in the book, scientists see the idea that there are limits to the applicability of empirical inquiry as a red flag. But the notion that reductionist explanations are necessary for us to understand the arts or morality is a form of pseudoscience. There's a big difference between describing the brain states of people listening to music and the human experience of music. And making it sound like anything subjective is arbitrary and irrelevant is one of the pitfalls of scientism.

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Replies to this message:
 Message 4 by Tangle, posted 06-12-2015 5:58 PM MrHambre has responded

  
MrHambre
Member (Idle past 330 days)
Posts: 1495
From: Framingham, MA, USA
Joined: 06-23-2003


Message 5 of 92 (759537)
06-12-2015 7:48 PM
Reply to: Message 4 by Tangle
06-12-2015 5:58 PM


quote:

As Gould describes in the book, scientists see the idea that there are limits to the applicability of empirical inquiry as a red flag.

And that's fair enough, why wouldn't they until proven wrong? It's just another hypothesis.

Well, because the entire enterprise of empirical inquiry is only supposed to deal with empirical factors, not our ideas of meaning and value. Science generates data, but it can't tell us what it means.

quote:
But the notion that reductionist explanations are necessary for us to understand the arts or morality is a form of pseudoscience.

This has the look, smell and feel of a straw man.


In that case you either think that we can approach the arts and ethics without science, or that art and morality are trivial, personal matters that aren't meaningful next to the hard sciences. Which is it?

quote:
There's a big difference between describing the brain states of people listening to music and the human experience of music.

And there he is again.


Well, there are a lot of people who feel they're getting an explanation of a phenomenon through a description of the brainwave activity of a person undergoing the phenomenon. Can I be excused for recognizing this as classic reductionism? What human experience can't be described as a change in brain chemistry, etc.?


This message is a reply to:
 Message 4 by Tangle, posted 06-12-2015 5:58 PM Tangle has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 6 by Tangle, posted 06-13-2015 4:00 AM MrHambre has responded
 Message 36 by AZPaul3, posted 06-14-2015 7:33 PM MrHambre has responded

  
MrHambre
Member (Idle past 330 days)
Posts: 1495
From: Framingham, MA, USA
Joined: 06-23-2003


Message 7 of 92 (759579)
06-13-2015 10:36 AM
Reply to: Message 6 by Tangle
06-13-2015 4:00 AM


Tangle writes:

I understand that some - it seems to me, a very few - people think that everything about the human experience will ultimately be understood by science. That seems unreasonable to me, but it does seem more reasonable that we will make great inroads into it. Some things will be more amenable than others.


Don't get me wrong, I don't think there's nothing to be gained by studying the neurobiology involved in the human experience of, for instance, art or music. I just think that's a different matter than the subjective, personal experience of art and music or the way art resonates in cultures. Those issues are important matters, they're just not scientific ones.

Gould takes issue with the way Wilson defines a reductionist approach as "solving" matters by breaking them down into their constituent elements. Even in science, emergent properties can't be explained using this approach: defining water as H2O tells us nothing about the property of liquidity, because it's not contained in the constituent atoms. So a reductionist approach is going to be useful in some sense, but the notion that it's sufficient for explaining complex human cultural phenomena is simply not true.

I'm not sure how far we'll be able to go with this, it strikes me that the human is far too complex a mechanism to reduce to its components and expect it to be no more than the sum of its parts. But I do expect us to go a very long way with it because the other view is hubris - we want to believe that we're special and can't be deconstructed and understood by a third party other than a god.

I fully share your skepticism about the ultimate worth of such an approach. However, I wonder whether there's not an equal amount of hubris in the view that Scientific Man will not only tame time and space and decode the universe, but also solve existential questions about the meaning of existence with the tools of empirical inquiry. I certainly don't feel that human beings are "special" in that they're separate from the biosphere or blessed; but we're unique in the sense that we've developed an understanding of our place in the universe and our responsibility to each other and the rest of life on Earth.

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Replies to this message:
 Message 8 by Faith, posted 06-13-2015 10:53 AM MrHambre has not yet responded
 Message 18 by Tangle, posted 06-13-2015 12:45 PM MrHambre has responded
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MrHambre
Member (Idle past 330 days)
Posts: 1495
From: Framingham, MA, USA
Joined: 06-23-2003


(1)
Message 12 of 92 (759591)
06-13-2015 11:45 AM
Reply to: Message 10 by mikechell
06-13-2015 11:29 AM


Tangle writes:

We all know *you're* special, Faith.


Sometimes, the low road is the only way to go.

mikechell writes:

We are just an organic result of millions of years of selection and evolution.


Well, scientifically speaking, that's exactly what we are. But it's a mistake to say that's all we are. I'm a humanist who believes there's something unique and meaningful about human existence and potential; I'm not surprised science can't tell us what it is, because it's not really a scientific question.

This message is a reply to:
 Message 10 by mikechell, posted 06-13-2015 11:29 AM mikechell has responded

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 Message 14 by mikechell, posted 06-13-2015 11:54 AM MrHambre has responded

  
MrHambre
Member (Idle past 330 days)
Posts: 1495
From: Framingham, MA, USA
Joined: 06-23-2003


Message 15 of 92 (759598)
06-13-2015 12:00 PM
Reply to: Message 14 by mikechell
06-13-2015 11:54 AM


Science will, if we live up to our meaning and potential, be able to tell us everything that we are.

You're a true man of faith.

ABE: Let's not make science sound like something it isn't (namely religion). It's a tool humans developed to understand natural phenomena through empirical testing. It's not supposed to tell us the meaning of life.

Edited by MrHambre, : No reason given.


This message is a reply to:
 Message 14 by mikechell, posted 06-13-2015 11:54 AM mikechell has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 19 by mikechell, posted 06-13-2015 10:56 PM MrHambre has responded

  
MrHambre
Member (Idle past 330 days)
Posts: 1495
From: Framingham, MA, USA
Joined: 06-23-2003


Message 21 of 92 (759643)
06-13-2015 11:20 PM
Reply to: Message 18 by Tangle
06-13-2015 12:45 PM


Tangle writes:

that's a very misleading way of describing how a scientist might approach the problem of explaining the properties of water. In practice he's use multiple methods, including looking at its molecular make-up and comparing it to other fluids.


Fine. The only approach Gould is criticizing is the reductionist approach.

Scientists trying to understand human experience would - and do - take multi-disciplinary and multi-method approaches and try to piece things together.

Except when they don't. Yale professor David Gelertner criticizes neuroscientists for sticking to the mechanistic analogy of brain-as-biological-computer long after it has outlived its usefulness. Machine fantasies might be preferable to religious ones, but are they getting us any closer to the truth about consciousness?

But we are barely out of the cradle as far as scientific and social development goes. We've only had science proper for a few hundred years and for most of that we needed steam. We only unscrambled our DNA a couple of years ago.

And scientific endeavor has become the domain of an elite who are beholden to corporate largesse rather than motivated by a commitment to the truth. It's no wonder that science defines us as gene machines and cosmically irrelevant pollution. That's exactly the way our corporate overlords would like us to think of ourselves, as nothing more than docile consumers and obedient employees.

Picking consciousness out as specially, special is very human.
Fair enough. But it's something that science has struggled with modeling, and it represents a substantial shortcoming in reductionist methodology. As Gelertner explains:
quote:
Your subjective, conscious experience is just as real as the tree outside your window or the photons striking your retina—even though you alone feel it. Many philosophers and scientists today tend to dismiss the subjective and focus wholly on an objective, third-person reality—a reality that would be just the same if men had no minds. They treat subjective reality as a footnote, or they ignore it, or they announce that, actually, it doesn’t even exist.

I think philosopher Thomas Nagel's work The View From Nowhere is a very important response to this question.

I don't see this specialness as necessarily being impregnable to scientific enquiry though. And I wouldn't reduce scientific enquiry to a reductionist accusation of reductionism. If you get me.

Again, I don't want to make it seem like I don't think scientific inquiry can be of any value here. It's just that I don't think questions of value, meaning, and agency are scientific matters. And I think the burden of proof is on the science cheerleaders to describe what benefit science can be to our understanding of them.

This message is a reply to:
 Message 18 by Tangle, posted 06-13-2015 12:45 PM Tangle has responded

Replies to this message:
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MrHambre
Member (Idle past 330 days)
Posts: 1495
From: Framingham, MA, USA
Joined: 06-23-2003


Message 22 of 92 (759644)
06-13-2015 11:30 PM
Reply to: Message 19 by mikechell
06-13-2015 10:56 PM


mikechell writes:

The purpose of life is to continue the species. We are just another animal on this planet of life. There's nothing more "important" about us than that.


Once again, I wonder why we're supposed to believe that science is equipped to describe the human condition in any more ennobling terms than this.

If you say science tells us we're just gene machines, then I submit that you're expecting science ---a useful tool in many areas--- to validate your prejudices about human potential.


This message is a reply to:
 Message 19 by mikechell, posted 06-13-2015 10:56 PM mikechell has responded

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MrHambre
Member (Idle past 330 days)
Posts: 1495
From: Framingham, MA, USA
Joined: 06-23-2003


Message 24 of 92 (759647)
06-13-2015 11:44 PM
Reply to: Message 23 by nwr
06-13-2015 11:35 PM


nwr writes:

If you look, I'm sure you can find many web pages that shred Gelernter's ridiculous rant.


Yeah, but none that tell me anything more cogent than that Gelertner put science in a bad light for not living up to its ideals of open-mindedness and radical skepticism.

Just out of curiosity, what do you think is so "ridiculous" about Gelertner's ideas?


This message is a reply to:
 Message 23 by nwr, posted 06-13-2015 11:35 PM nwr has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 26 by nwr, posted 06-14-2015 1:05 AM MrHambre has responded

  
MrHambre
Member (Idle past 330 days)
Posts: 1495
From: Framingham, MA, USA
Joined: 06-23-2003


(2)
Message 28 of 92 (759669)
06-14-2015 9:21 AM
Reply to: Message 26 by nwr
06-14-2015 1:05 AM


nwr writes:

Gelernter is himself a scientist. He ought to know how little power science actually has.


I'd say science has a lot more power than you let on. The academic research and industry apparatus of science are staggeringly well-funded. My wife works at MIT, where the humanities are treated with contempt next to those lucrative hard sciences.

And the power science has over our imaginations in this millennium is hard to overestimate. Like Gould says in this book, scientists have been very successful in promulgating the secular mythology that states that science has been mankind's ticket out of ignorance and folly; its vision is free from the prejudices, vested interests, and biases that beset other human endeavors; and anyone who says there's anything unrealistic about the way we idealize science must be a religious nut or a crackpot.

Even in this thread, people talk about science as if it's synonymous with reality, or that it's self-evident that it's the only source of knowledge worth considering. If scientists like Dawkins and Krauss tell us we're nothing but gene machines or cosmic pollution, then dammit, that's all we are. If there were anything unique or meaningful about human existence, the story goes, science would have detected it by now! The audience for this sort of cheerleading has been groomed by a culture where gadgetry is more important than the arts or humanities, and where our view of what constitutes empirical inquiry is de-historicized and philosophically shallow.

I think Gelertner made some very good points in his article. A lot of the messages we get from the science industry are depressingly anti-humanistic. Still Better Than Religion! is a great slogan for people who prefer machine fantasies to religious ones. But those of us who consider ourselves humanists wonder how much difference there really is between the two.


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 Message 26 by nwr, posted 06-14-2015 1:05 AM nwr has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 29 by nwr, posted 06-14-2015 9:36 AM MrHambre has responded
 Message 31 by mikechell, posted 06-14-2015 11:38 AM MrHambre has responded
 Message 32 by ringo, posted 06-14-2015 3:09 PM MrHambre has not yet responded

  
MrHambre
Member (Idle past 330 days)
Posts: 1495
From: Framingham, MA, USA
Joined: 06-23-2003


Message 30 of 92 (759678)
06-14-2015 10:07 AM
Reply to: Message 29 by nwr
06-14-2015 9:36 AM


Meantime, back in reality

Since you ignored literally everything I wrote in my response, I'm going to return the favor.


This message is a reply to:
 Message 29 by nwr, posted 06-14-2015 9:36 AM nwr has acknowledged this reply

  
MrHambre
Member (Idle past 330 days)
Posts: 1495
From: Framingham, MA, USA
Joined: 06-23-2003


Message 33 of 92 (759708)
06-14-2015 3:43 PM
Reply to: Message 31 by mikechell
06-14-2015 11:38 AM


mikechell writes:

because it's mostly true. Science reveals reality.


That's a grade-school conception of science you've got there: it's like there's all these facts, things like cells and species and atoms, out there waiting for humanity to discover them. It's more accurate to say that these things are all part of a symbolic language that humanity developed to conceptualize the data generated by empirical research. And there's a lot of controversy over how much of reality we discover and how much we create in the process.

I guess you've never read anything by Gould, huh? He had a much more sophisticated view of scientific inquiry than the pop science writers of today, one that explored how science has historically reflected the social dynamics of its time. Gould wasn't anti-science, he was a celebrated scientist in his own right. He wasn't saying we should get rid of science, he just wanted us to have a sense of perspective in approaching it.

ringo writes:

quote:
A lot of the messages we get from the science industry are depressingly anti-humanistic.

My copy must have been lost in the email. Do you have any examples?

Well, how about Dawkins telling us we're nothing but machines built by our genes to propagate themselves? How about Krauss telling us that we're "cosmically insignificant"? I don't consider either of these messages very humanistic, but maybe you've got a different take on it than I do.

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 Message 37 by AZPaul3, posted 06-14-2015 7:45 PM MrHambre has responded

  
MrHambre
Member (Idle past 330 days)
Posts: 1495
From: Framingham, MA, USA
Joined: 06-23-2003


(3)
Message 40 of 92 (759743)
06-14-2015 8:27 PM
Reply to: Message 36 by AZPaul3
06-14-2015 7:33 PM


AZPaul3 writes:

Do you really think that just because we know how sound propagates in air, enters the ear vibrating cilia in the cochlea firing changes in electric potential along s-nerves to the neurons in the auditory cortex somehow detracts from the wonder and pleasure of listening to the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 9th symphony? And we even know what area of the brain lights up to produce that pleasant feeling. Is something in the pleasure missing because we know the mechanism?


Uh, yeah, what's missing is the meaning.

I'm not disputing that human experience involves neurochemistry. I recall there was a meme that shows the two words DOPAMINE and SEROTONIN; underneath it says, "these are the only two things you really enjoy." On one level, of course, that's true. But do we really think it explains everything about human experience when we reduce it to squirts of neurochemicals?

There is nothing in this universe that cannot be rigorously studied with good scientific discipline. And none of those studies or their conclusions can detract from the beauty and awe one should feel from Picasso or from Keats.

Gould didn't dispute that all aspects of human endeavor should be studied scientifically. However, the point he was making is that the meaning we derive from art, literature, and music as individuals and a culture isn't a scientific matter.

I hear all this "reductionist" tripe as attempts to insult science by small-minded anti-science people afraid some mystery will be lost in the knowing; who think we must lose something magical in understanding things of beauty or culture or emotion. It's bull.

But this is Stephen Jay Gould we're talking about, one of the most prominent scientists and historiographers of science of his day. You're really calling him "anti-science"?

What I think is bull is pretending that locating the mechanism of these things of beauty or culture or emotion is the same as understanding them. You might not like that someone sees reductionism and scientism for what they are, biases that keep us from legitimate understanding.

Why would you think we should feel "awe" when confronted with great art, music, or poetry, if it's all just an illusion generated by brain chemistry?


This message is a reply to:
 Message 36 by AZPaul3, posted 06-14-2015 7:33 PM AZPaul3 has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 43 by AZPaul3, posted 06-14-2015 9:49 PM MrHambre has responded

  
MrHambre
Member (Idle past 330 days)
Posts: 1495
From: Framingham, MA, USA
Joined: 06-23-2003


(1)
Message 41 of 92 (759744)
06-14-2015 8:45 PM
Reply to: Message 37 by AZPaul3
06-14-2015 7:45 PM


AZPaul3 writes:

Doesn't make you feel very special, does it. Doesn't make you feel like you're the center of the universe; that all this was put here just to serve you?


So, according to you, anyone who takes issue with being compared to a machine is just butthurt because he's not the center of the universe? Did I get that right?

They weren't meant to be humanistic. They were meant to be factual.

I wonder if it would convey how insulting I think this rhetoric is if I said that, since women have organs for carrying a fetus, they're nothing more than procreating machines. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but is that factual too?

None of that means we can't have a hell of a lot of fun while we are here. Make music, have babies, eat Häagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream, make babies, cry over poems, make babies, and like that. We are a very special bag of walking talking DNA strands inhabiting a beautiful blue-green dust mote out in the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of a lone galaxy to which the rest of the universe is oblivious.

Yeah, so we're back to that meaning thing again. We should just procreate and buy things and do silly stuff while we're around, and never pay any mind to cultural or social notions of meaning or purpose? Sounds like a real consumerist vision of humanity.

This message is a reply to:
 Message 37 by AZPaul3, posted 06-14-2015 7:45 PM AZPaul3 has responded

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MrHambre
Member (Idle past 330 days)
Posts: 1495
From: Framingham, MA, USA
Joined: 06-23-2003


Message 46 of 92 (759759)
06-14-2015 10:24 PM
Reply to: Message 43 by AZPaul3
06-14-2015 9:49 PM


If you see science as some form of institutional bias then you do not understand science. Any understanding of any mechanism outside the science is not any kind of legitimate understanding at all. What you are referring to as "legitimate understanding" is no more then your personal wishful thinking. Religiously motivated platitudes masquerading as "understanding". They have no basis in fact or reality. If they did, they would be science.

What better way to make science sound like a religion than make pompous pronouncements that affirm that anything outside the province of empirical inquiry is just wishful thinking?

I think it's hilarious the way you dismiss meaning as being "subjective," as if the word means "arbitrary" or "irrelevant." It sounds like you want to de-emphasize the importance of anything that can't be accessed by empirical inquiry. The problem for you is that subjective experience is real, even if it's something that reductionist science treats as nothing more than a mechanical by-product.

Reductionism, scientism, whatever insults you want to draw upon in your attempt to diminish the power of science to study all things, without limit, fail.

As Gould points out in his usual erudite way, though, they don't. Thinking you can understand a phenomenon by breaking it down to its constituent elements is a myth. Thinking that empirical research is the arbiter of all questions pertaining to human endeavor is a myth.

Each to his own delusions.

Edited by MrHambre, : No reason given.


This message is a reply to:
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