Thursday, June 7, 2012

On being causal and being caused

A fair amount of human activity is motivated by the desire to identify the causes of things, in answer to the questions 'how?' and 'why?'.  Answers to the latter question generally begin with the word 'because', followed by a description of circumstances that are thought to explain (make 'sense' of) whatever it was that inspired the question.

Of course, as any parent knows, any answer to to the question 'why?' only invites the same question again, as the explanation itself needs explaining.

To anyone who makes the effort to think about it (which apparently does not include politicians, pundits, or much of the voting public), it becomes quickly apparent that the notion of 'causality' is a complex can of worms.  It is, therefore, a ripe subect for philosophy, one that (like so many others) was thoroughly developed by Aristotle, who identified four causal categories: material, efficient, formal, and final.  According to Aristotle, explanations that fail to identify causes from each category are inadequate.  Of all the categories, final cause is most relevant to the question 'why', because it is the reason for a thing's existence--its intended purpose, a specific goal that fulfills some want or need.  Thus, the final cause of something is (or requires some notion or inkling of) the thing itself, or at least whatever it is that the thing will do that is desirable.

Science is ostensibly all about identifying natural causes, in order to enhance our ability to predict and control nature ('knowledge is power').  Francis Bacon, a founding father of the scientific method, sought to simplify the whole problem of causality by declaring that natural philosophy should not be concerned with 'final cause' (and to some extent formal cause as well), since the latter is something that exists only in the minds of human beings and God.  That, along with the dualism of Descartes, effectively disallowed any scientific explanations of nature involving mental anticipation and intent.

One thing that all explanations have in common is that they refer, either explicitly or implicitly, to history.  That is, the cause of anything that is happening now is something that happened in the past.  Since naturalist explanations aren't allowed to invoke mind, they do not allow for the possibility that future possibilities can influence past events.

So in general, scientists do not really address the question why--at least not in the way that it is addressed by everyone else (e.g. detectives in seeking the 'motive' of a crime).  And consequently, if we are philosophical naturalists and take the view that nature is only that which is defined by strict Baconian/Cartesesian science then we have to say that nature lacks purpose, which leads logically to the nihilistic conclusion that beyond selfish human concerns, nothing really matters: life is a Bohemian Rhapsody. 

Seeking causes is well and good, but we tend to take it way too seriously, and too far.  The notion of causality undoubtedly has an ontological basis, but the quest to identify causes is entirely epistemological--a mental phenomenon.  So it is really a linguistic problem, and like all linguistic problems, it can be interpreted too literally.  Anything and everything has myriad (perhaps an infinite number of) causes.  But literalists of all stripes fall into the binary trap of thinking that a cause is THE cause, and annoyingly, will often insist that you are wrong if you suggest that there are others worth considering.

It seems to me that if we avoid that trap then the specter of existential nihilism evaporates.  And, since 'being causal' and 'being caused' have direct bearing on the notions of being 'to blame' and 'at fault', forgiveness also comes a bit easier.

Monday, April 30, 2012


If you ever want to excite a stickler, all you need do is take poetic liberties with the word entropy--a term coined by Rudolf Clausius to refer to the potential energy that is irrecoverably lost during any kind of work.

Just ask Jeremy Rifkin.

I read Rifkin's book Entropy: A New World View shortly after it came out in 1980, during my senior year in college.  I resonated with it at the time, and (though I have not revisited it since) still do.

In spite of what they say, I don't think the critics' beef with the book has anything to do with misappropriation of the word 'entropy'.  Rifkin hit a nerve all right, but not by misusing a technical term.  It's more like the nerve you hit when you tell an alcoholic that they have a drinking problem.  I suspect that the criticism amounts to nothing more (and nothing less) than the deep-seated defensiveness of denial.

What difference does it make if the book's subject--the increasingly destructive effects of pollution and ecological degradation caused by our industrial global economy--does not precisely fit the precise technical definition of 'entropy'?  That does not make the book's thesis any less true.

Whatever.  From my perspective the use of 'entropy' by Rifkin and co-author Ted Howard is justified, because their intended meaning is fully consonant with that of Clausius.  Entropy is not a complicated concept--all it means is that work costs potential.  So if you only attend to the benefits of doing the work, and ignore the costs ('externalization' anyone?) you are bound to run into problems: sooner or later something that you depend on--something that grants the potential necessary for you to keep working--will be gone, converted forever into an unusable form.  You don't have to look far these days to see the truth of that.  I'd say Rifkin and Howard are looking pretty prophetic.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Thoughts on randomness

Random: now there's a loaded term.  Can you think of a better word for aggravating hardcore determinists, theist and atheist alike?

On the one hand are those who would have you believe that everything is purposefully determined by Divine Will. 

On the other hand are those who would have you believe that everythng is algorithmically determined by Physical Law. 

If something is random, it is 'uncaused', or 'not influenced by prior bias or disposition'.

The determinists hold that nothing is uncaused; that randomness signifies nothing more than a lack of knowledge: what appears uncaused is not really that; it's just that we don't know enough to ascertain what the cause is.  That is, randomness is entirely epistemological.

But so what?  There is nothing wrong with the idea that everything is caused by something.  But it is impossible to know enough about all the relevant somethings to completely eliminate randomness from experience.  No one will ever know enough about the forces and contingencies influencing the trajectory of a tossed coin to predict the outcome with certainty.  So if you choose to believe that randomness has no objective reality, you are still left with nothing but faith to support that belief--be it faith in a supernatural deity, or faith in physical determinism. 

Which leads me to ask: does it matter whether randomness is ontological or epistemological?  Seems to me that the one amounts to six, the other a half a dozen.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Poetic intuition, metaphor, and Heidegger

As a scientist I have struggled with the supposed need to restrain my poetic instincts with the use of words.  So I was gratified to learn, in reading McGilchrist's The Master and his Emissary, that the 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger--toward whose work I've found myself gravitating of late--was similarly disposed:
"Heiddeger reached naturally towards metaphor, in which more than one thing is kept implicitly (hiddenly) before the mind, since he valued, unusually for a philosopher, the ambiguity of poetic language.  He lamented the awful Eindeutigkeit--literally the 'one-meaningness' or explicitness--to which in a computer age we tend: both Wittgenstein and Heidegger, according to Richard Rorty, 'ended by trying to work out honourable terms on which philosophy might surrender to poetry'.  Wittgenstein's work became increasingly apophthegmatic: he repeatedly struggled with the idea that philosophy was not possible outside of poetry.  And Heidegger ultimately found himself, in his last works, resorting to poetry to convey the complexity and depth of his meaning.  He saw language as integral to whatever it brings forward, just as the body is to Dasein, not as a mere container for thought: 'Words and language are not wrappings in which things are packed for the commerce of those who write and speak.'"
That gets directly to the heart of what I'm finding to be seriously problematic about science, or at least science as it is normally perceived and practiced: the attempt to pin down, in order to extract meaning and value, that which cannot possibly be pinned down without loss of meaning and value.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

On the sanctity of definitions

The inspiration for this post comes from a letter to the editor in this morning's newspaper, in which letter-writer Michael McCabe wonders:
"In the debate over whether the definition of marriage can be changed, I have not yet heard an answer to the following question: Whence comes the authority to change the definition?"
A loaded question calls for a loaded answer, so here's mine:

The authority to change any definition is consensual.  Definitions are conceived when consenting adults engage in poetic intercourse, so they change in conjunction with evolving consciousness. That is the basis of semantic evolution.

To see this just think of how the definition of 'gay' has changed over the past century.

So, Mr. McCabe, there's your answer: the authority to change the definition of marriage comes from the seminal font of creativity within each of us.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Now there's a word that's gotten me into trouble.  Trouble is, it's means exactly what I meant to say, but not what the folks I was trying to sell my idea to wanted to hear.

The idea that I meant to convey is that living systems, including cells and organisms, are more or less indeterminate--that is, not fully determined.  What's more, the relative amount of indeterminacy maintained by a cell or organism is quantifiable in terms of statistical (informational) entropy, which can easily be computed from DNA sequence data.

But try suggesting that in a grant application reviewed by one of the many scientists who believe that indeterminacy is not really real or relevant to biology.  Hoo boy, talk about getting locked out.

Best to use a less loaded word that conveys essentially the same meaning.  Like plasticity...

Monday, April 9, 2012

Finding the right word

The right word or combination of words can be like the key that fits the lock and opens the door.  Sometimes you just can't find it. 

Have you ever spent hours composing an e-mail consisting of just a few sentences?  (I have, many times.)

Then of course there is the other problem, at least for me, of being overly attached to a word that is too loaded to work effectively.  That can get you locked out by causing a bad reaction in your intended audience.

I guess that's one thing that effective communication comes down to--you have to relate to your audience.  You can use the right words and unlock the door, or use the wrong words and lock yourself out.  And the thing is, the right word and the wrong word may actually be synonyms.

So I guess the question becomes: how do you know when the word is right?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Putting thoughts into words

I am fascinated by words and the meaning they convey, to the point where I find it enjoyable to read dictionaries.  So that's what this blog is about.  Hence the title. 

I just discovered, while perusing the web (dictionaries at your fingertips!), that the term 'semantically loaded' refers to the problems that come from words having multiple or ambiguous meanings.  As in, I suppose, "that is a loaded term".  I had been thinking I would write a blog about the joys and problems of communication, and the potential for miscommunication inherent in semantics, under the title 'semantic argument', but that title is already taken, and 'semantically loaded' seemed to fit even better.

Did you ever wonder how much human strife can be attributed to miscommunication owing to semantics?

Or to what extent the creation of new knowledge actually depends on semantic ambiguity?

Words are used for different purposes.  Science demands precise meanings, so in scientific writing loaded terms are eschewed as much as possible, even if the term captures an intended meaning.  Poetry, in contrast, seeks to open the mind to new perspectives, and for this semantically loaded words can work wonders.  The double entendre is a poet's friend.

It is not uncommon to hear someone say that a discussion is "just about semantics", as if that makes it less interesting or important.  But for me semantic arguments are never trivial and always interesting.