Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Reading Journal: Contingency, irony, and solidarity

In the first part of this book Richard Rorty challenges the (almost universal) assumption that science is in the business of describing the truth. Instead of thinking of science as clearing the window that allows us to see truth, we should see it as providing tools that we can use to navigate our surroundings. I tend to bristle at this sort of thing: You wonder if the philosopher is pausing to check the implications of his tortuous argument against the world outside his head. But then, there have been a series of physicists doing exactly that - checking the implications of quantum mechanics against the world we can see and touch and coming to the conclusion that what we think of as reality may not be real. Crazy I know. To describe this sort of thing you really need a cranky old physicist with a french accent:

For my purposes here, I'm not really that interested in delving into the ultimate nature of reality. I'm content to try to grapple with the problem of living well in the reality we experience every day. I only post this Bernard d'Espagnat video because, if you accept any of what he's saying, it starts to make sense to think of the study of the natural world, not revealing as revealing the Truth bit by bit, but instead giving us tools to better make our way through our surroundings. Science is not in the Truth business, and it should be valued for it's results, if it makes our lives better, the same way politics, or art, or carpentry can be valued for making lives better.
Note that for d'Espagnat the goal is still finding the real. He mentions that Bell's inequalities show a gap between reality "as it really is" versus how we conceptualize it. He doesn't entertain the idea that there is no such thing as reality as it really is. For him the truth is still out there, we just have to deal with the minor inconvenience of an unreliable sense of reality as we search for it. (Not sure this is true, he thinks reality is out there, I guess the question is can you conceive of and describe that reality in a way that gets at Truth?)

Rorty is not specifically interested in science (which is a problem for me), he is principally interested in language, which is contingent: It depends on people's use and thinking for its meaning. And he uses the contingency of language to draw a fine line between the existence of reality and our ability to describe reality:
 Truth cannot be out there - cannot exist independently of the human mind - because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own - unaided by the describing activities of human beings - cannot.
Truth is made rather than found, Rorty writes, in that truth consists of a critical mass of facts and facts are sentences made up of words and words are made rather than found. So you can observe say a bluebird singing, but once you start thinking about it in language you are creating something different - an abstraction of the bluebird (that will likely cause you to overlook some details of the actual creature in front of you). So when you say, "the blue bird is singing," you are making something up. This fact that you have made is a useful tool (like the tools provided by science) for helping other people imagine something like what you saw. There's one big problem with this tool metaphor (which comes from Wittgenstein, incidentally),
The craftsman typically knows what job he needs to do before picking or inventing tools with which to do it. By contrast, someone like Galileo, Yeats, or Hegel (a "poet" in my wide sense of the term - the sense of "one who makes things new" is typically unable to make clear exactly what it is that he wants to do before developing the language in which he succeeds in doing it.
Which I think is a lovely way of painting up the word poetry. Making something that has not been dreamed. Finding a new way to take pictures of viruses and writing a poem, under this conception, are on the same order and should not be judged, Rorty writes, by how closely the new things they allow us to see, conform to reality. You could do that - but remember that you'd be comparing a description of this new invention against a reality that you described in words - you wouldn't be doing either justice. The distinction you'd be making would be between "familiar and unfamiliar uses of noises and marks." Instead, the invention should be judged on its ability to more ably navigate the world.

Romantics v. Rationalists
Rorty argues that Romanticism is simply inverted Platonism:
"Whereas the metaphorical looks irrelevant to Platonists and positivists, the literal looks irrelevant to Romantics. For the former thinks the point of language is to represent a hidden reality which lies outside us, and the latter thinks its purpose is to express a hidden reality which lies within us.
"Positivist history of culture thus sees language" (ie science) "as gradually shaping itself around the contours of the physical world. Romantic history of culture sees language as gradually bringing Spirit to self-consciousness."
Rorty is not interested in whether this is true, and neither am I. We are interested whether this new language is useful. Specifically, for Rorty, if it causes a decrease in suffering. Ascribing something access to Truth causes problems. In the Enlightenment we tried to
"substitute a love of truth for a love of God, treating the world described by science as a quasi-divinity. Beginning at the end of the eighteenth century we tried to substitute a love of ourselves for a love of scientific truth, a worship of our own deep spiritual or poetic nature, treated as one more quasi-divinity."
The desire for a quasi-divinity comes from the desire to deny chance its caprice. Chance is terrifying. And if science (or religion, or poetry) offers access to the Truth, it also offers the ability to predict and control our fate. Both scientists and priests are faced with the problem of overreach among the laity who ask, why does God deliver Daniel but not me? Why does science save the lives of some, but not mine? The result of such a crisis is either acceptance of merciless chance, disillusionment with the vocabulary (science, religion), or the concoction of new theories to preserve certainty. Instead of deciding that there is no God or that science is bunk, you say the Truth is out there, but it is hidden. And often, people or governments are hiding it.
The alternative is to know yourself, to admit that circumstance has shaped you and will continue to do so, search out the best possible tools with which to navigate this uncertain world and sally forth clear-eyed. In the end we cannot conquer chance and suffering - only recognize it - and Rorty says this recognition is the only power against implacable force we can hope to have. We can decrease suffering with better tools, but we can't end it.

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