How to Measure Useful Fictions: Science, Anomalistics, and “As if” Philosophy

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“There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle” – Albert Einstein

anomaly_mermaid

Wouldn’t you rather behave as if we existed?

Scientists hate metaphysicians.  And while it may be true that your average metaphysician smells bad, people in last week’s unwashed lab coats shouldn’t throw stones, or beakers, or calculus, or whatever it is that your average scientist would hurl in a fit of pique.  Now, if you’re a metaphysician you should not take it personally.  Scientists hate a lot of people on intellectual grounds from academics in the humanities to anomalists.  Watch a natural scientist bristle when a social scientists has the hubris to class himself amongst them.  Awkward.  This is almost understandable, as deep in any reflective natural scientist’s heart is the conviction that there are a finite set of natural laws that govern the universe, and once we have discovered them all, everything else is just fleshing out the mechanical details and acting in concordance with how the world works.  Honestly, it’s what makes them so good at what they’re doing.  The central problem is that humans and the products of our consciousness are messy.

Consider economist Milton Friedman’s classic example of the billiard player.  The scientist in describing the mechanics of the game will relate intricate mathematical formulas, that can to some degree predict the behavior of the billiard player.  “It seems not at all unreasonable that excellent predictions would be yielded by the hypothesis that the billiard player made his shots as if he knew the complicated mathematical formulas that would give the optimum directions of travel, could estimate accurately by eye the angles, etc., describing the location of the balls, could make lightning calculations from the formulas, and could then make the balls travel in the direction indicated by the formulas. Our confidence in this hypothesis is not based on the belief that billiard players, even expert ones, can or do go through the process described; it derives rather from the belief that, unless in some way or other they were capable of reaching essentially the same result, they would not in fact be expert billiard players” (Friedman, 1953).  The pesky consciousness of the billiard player says, “It just felt right”, but the scientist cannot accept this as an accurate description of the game.  Thus a savvy player with an intuitive ability to play pool is rendered an ersatz mathematical prodigy, as the laws of the universe, per our understanding permit no other possibility.

The introduction of human consciousness, an element that seems strangely averse to adhering to mathematical modelling, muddies the waters.  In all manner of metaphysically oriented questions, humans behave “as if”, both pragmatically and productively.  Just as science has pragmatic and productive implications, to treat consciousness as mechanism, rather than experience is only an approximation.  In a recent Scientific American article entitled, “Is It Possible to Measure Supernatural or Paranormal Phenomena?”, skeptic par excellence Michael Shermer argued, “The history of science has beheld the steady replacement of the paranormal and the supernatural with the normal and the natural. Weather events once attributed to the supernatural scheming of deities are now understood to be the product of natural forces of temperature and pressure. Plagues formerly ascribed to women cavorting with the devil are currently known to be caused by bacteria and viruses. Mental illnesses previously imputed to demonic possession are today sought in genes and neurochemistry. Accidents heretofore explained by fate, karma or providence are nowadays accredited to probabilities, statistics and risk” (Shermer, 2016), conveniently ignoring the fact that probability and statistics only offer just such an approximation of reality, and in dismissing all inquiry into the paranormal as hokum, concluded that the main problem is a rampant post-modernist mindset that brooks no objective reality – a hypothetical conceit founded on the idea that science has been wrong in the past, thus science is purely a cultural construction.  In short, the idea that because a monolithic institution called “Science” has invented some pretty wacky explanations in the past that have since been proven wrong, its conclusions about reality are always suspect.  Now, that’s just silly.  Science is the accumulation of approximations that iteratively describe reality with greater precision.  You can’t argue with success.  Until you introduce human consciousness.  The universe and our experience of the universe are not the same, and I for one am not ready to toss out the conscious baby with the bathwater.

Inevitably, my musings on the philosophy of science that involve casting any aspersions on the motivations and philosophies (when reflective in any way) of scientists is met with the accusation that I am the worst kind of post-modernist academic.  Well, for one I’m not an academic – I work for a living.  And secondarily, the worst kind of post-modernist is clearly Althusser, who strangled his wife and largely got away with it.  While I admit the temptation occasionally rears its ugly head, I have never strangled my wife.  This is of course invariably followed, as exemplified by Shermer (who was talking about devotees of the paranormal in general, rather than me specifically, but I can’t help engaging in the debate in my head – the voices are quite demanding) in his Scientific American article, by the idea that I come by my philosophical perspective through a rejection of any objective reality.

Dude, I get it.  Scientists make cooler and cooler stuff based on approximations of the elusive grail of objective reality. Oddly, the microwave times on my TV dinners never actually adequately heat them, but I’m a forgiving kind of guy.  I can add a minute knowing that there are a lot of variables involved without rejecting science out of hand.  Perhaps humans are just biological machines and one day we will explain every nuance, fetish, and aberration of human behavior through the interaction of a particular set of particles, optimizing them, and creating a society perfectly adapted to our particular structure, but I wouldn’t hold your breath, nor is this the sort of society any of us would want to live in.  Humans live their lives “as if” what we can conceive of is true, and to some degree, the ability to conceptualize an existence somewhat different from what we are told is possible, makes us the masters of our own futures.

Yet many scientists and the skeptics who love them espouse a version of Shermer’s statement that “It is at the horizon where the known meets the unknown that we are tempted to inject paranormal and supernatural forces to explain hitherto unsolved mysteries, but we must resist the temptation because such efforts can never succeed, not even in principle” (Shermer, 2016).  This is a somewhat abject rejection of human experience as falsehood, as it is not couched in the syllogistic reasoning of science.  Sadly, most of us are required to live in the real (objective) world where inexplicable and outlying shit happens, and consequently are forced into a more catch-as-catch-can philosophy as espoused by German philosopher Hans Vaihinger (ungraciously referred to by many philosophers and historians of science as an irrelevant footnote), who suggested that human knowledge generally consists of fictions that can only be justified pragmatically, and thus asking whether metaphysical doctrines, religion, the paranormal, or the anomalistic have an objective reality is far less important than asking whether it is useful to act “as if” they were true.

I can only imagine that the popularity of the paranormal (as an entertainment genre) is the catalyst for the recent spate of irritable articles regarding the inanity of all inquiry into the anomalistic, but frankly the incommensurability of the paradigm that maintains human experience is the sum total of a fully explicable, but as of yet undiscovered naturalistic mechanism vs. a lived experience that retains a non-syllogistic meaning, coherent in a life lived “as if”, rather than an interaction of mindless yet undiscovered forces, finds itself incapable of transcending the difference between our description of the universe and our experience of it.  As Albert Einstein observed, “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure”.

References
Friedman, Milton.  Essays in Positive Economics.  University of Chicago Press, 1953.
Shermer, Michael.  “Is It Possible to Measure Supernatural or Paranormal Phenomena?”  Scientific American, September 1, 2016.

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