“Not all stories have happy endings; but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth the read” ― Cassia Leo, Black Box
What makes us endearingly different from the other animals is our use of technology. Fire was a pretty good idea. Big fan of the wheel. Where would I be without the printing press? Excepting the child labor, dark satanic mills, and anthropogenic climate change, the Industrial Revolution seems like it was a net positive. Let’s politely ignore the atom bombs, increasing toxicity of the environment, the mad rush towards the extinction of all species but our own, and our eventual enslavement by an artificial intelligence and say that on balance, science has been pretty good to us, curing disease, feeding the world, and putting a stop to all those messy witch burnings outside of academia. Things have worked out fairly well for the good old Homo sapiens, with our big brains and opposable thumbs. Go us. Nothing succeeds like success.
Sure we have all these vestigial gods and demons littered about and the sneaking suspicion that things are not always as they seem, but baby it’s all about the inputs and outputs. We’ve so handily and effectively engineered our universe that it’s no wonder that everything looks like an engineering problem. That’s why MacGyver is a modern superhero. Hand him a paperclip, some chewing gum, a six-pack of Chicken McNuggets and a little moxy, and he’ll make you fuel-air explosives. Plus there’s the whole permanently wind-blown hair. I have my best scientists working on reverse engineering that miracle of tonsorial technology.
Now, engineers are practical people. They’ve got results to achieve in the physical world. They don’t like to unnecessarily complicate things as that usually leads to explosions or other equally catastrophic consequences. Thus, if they can reliably predict the outputs of a system based on its inputs, it’s simply more efficient to “black box” the whole darn thing. I mean, the consumer, your boss, or the technical writer ultimately don’t care about the details as long it works. I can’t knap myself a clovis point, but I’m not going to argue with the experts about their design technique as long as it helps me bag a tasty mammoth. Engineers don’t have to stand on any ontological pretense. They’re busy inventing a better mousetrap, building our new robot overlords, or shooting shit into space. Keep up the good work ladies and gentlemen. I want to live on Mars someday, free from the robot overlords.
Sadly, science has frequently adopted much of the “black box” perspective, and by way of contrast, and in its default physicalism and absolute rejection of phenomenology, has enormous pretensions towards being the end all and be all of ontology. Don’t get me wrong, there are no doubt philosophically reflective scientists lurking out there who are deeply concerned with ontology and epistemology. I have not met them. They don’t invite me to their parties. They say I smell.
Science wants to reveal the mysteries of the universe to us, but tellingly, when it succeeds in establishing a kernel of utilitarian knowledge it spawns hybrid fields like bioengineering, geoengineering, and other agglutinative disciplines concerned with accomplishing real world effects. It’s no surprise, given how successful we have been at translating “pure” science and the logic of causality into utter dominance over everything that walks, swims, crawls, or orbits that we would inevitably turn our attention to the slightly more insidious idea that we will one day completely subsume humans under the control of scientific management, at which point we have moved from social inquiry to social engineering. Unfortunately, just as every scientific discovery is “black-boxed” under application, in order to incorporate the physicalist perspective on the natural world, we have determined that meaning, culture, and consciousness are yet another black box.
Now, my particular hobby is concerned with ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, in short the realm of things where the inputs and outputs are highly ambiguous, where meaning and significance is derived phenomenologically (that is, from the perspective of the experiencing subject). This is of course just as true for any phenomena for which a conscious mind is interposed between the external stimulus and the response.
When it comes to anomalistics and strange phenomena, science by necessity regards the consciousness of the human observer as just such a black box, that is, an opaque element in the flow of meaning. The constitution and structure of the box are deemed irrelevant, as only the behavior of the system need be accounted for. This is the essence of the ever-popular exercise of debunking. Describe the inputs (flesh and blood aliens or swamp gas, abominable apemen or mangy bears, plumbing problems or poltergeists) – it doesn’t matter, as the input is infinitely malleable when the only thing that is truly of consequence is the description of the output and the means for generating it are a black box of consciousness, and any mechanism may be presumed or ignored within the black box, as long as it generates the expected output. Yet, the output is always the same. Non-existence, predicated on the a priori assumption that the input must be natural, that mysterious manipulations of consciousness pass it through, inevitably resulting in the output, which in this case is held to be a false impression of the natural world. See how neatly that ties the room together?
Inside the black box is a philosophical monster, a ghastly thing that combines perceptual errors, insanity, mass hallucination, chicanery, ignorance, and fear into an all-consuming blob which can merrily assimilate any input, digest it, and excrete the same conclusion.
I have no doubt there are representatives of the scientific community with a philosophical inclination that are well versed in the fact that they are engaged in an epistemological exercise, and consequently point out that ontological suppositions have very little to do with their everyday work. I don’t necessarily agree with them, but I like them. They get a cookie. They have jobs and they mean to do them, and except for a few popular celebrity scientists, they mostly stick within the relatively useful, but narrow purview of the area of expertise that got them tenure. There really aren’t a lot of scientific “anomalologists” out there. Mostly because its nearly unpronounceable. That, and the fact that it would amount to the “Science of Not-Science”. Mind you, I didn’t say “non-science”. What we do have instead is the skeptic industry, those superheroes of the obvious, warriors of incredulity, masters of philosophical disaster, or as I like to think of them – the anomaly engineers.
What is an anomaly engineer? I’m glad you asked. They are the luminaries of radical skepticism that have chewed on the epistemology of science and mistakenly taste ontology, failing to recognize that science never proves, only has as of yet to disprove its hypothesis at a certain level of reliability. These are the “black-boxers” of strange phenomena, who can pass any input through consciousness (particularly of others) and generate evidence of human fallibility, gullibility, or fantasy. The actual input is irrelevant as well, since it need only emerge on the other side as disbelief. It doesn’t help that they do so with a smug grin and sense of superiority, although the compulsion does say something about their need to be right and to win. I think they got cheated in poker at a young age. The skeptic finds he must keep the lid on this Pandora’s box of potential ontological monsters, as opening it subjects the magical mechanism by which the incomprehensible is turned into the impossible to scrutiny, and excavates the empty ontology beneath, and the traditional gaping philosophical chasm of the infinite regress of Socrates, that is, if the reasons for belief count as knowledge, they must themselves be justified with reasons for the reasons, and so on, ad infinitum. Better to close the box, hide your ontological void, and refuse to admit, as Ralph B. Perry once said, that deep down it is usually better to “prefer credulity to skepticism and cynicism for there is more promise in almost anything than in nothing at all”.
Your essay brought to mind a paper by Peter Winch titled “Understanding a Primitive Society” (American Philosophical Quarterly, 1964, pp. 307-24). Winch examines Evans-Pritchard’s remarks about the way the Azande think about magic and witchcraft and whether Evans-Pritchard was assuming that Western rationalism was the gold standard against which Zande thought was being measured. Here is a link to a pdf of Winch’s paper:
Click to access WeekFive1964WinchUnderstandingaprimitivesociety.pdf
As an anthropologist (viz., a delver in the black box of sociocultural systems) I have found that a certain amount of vigilance is required to avoid treating Western science as a privileged universe of discourse. One of my mentors, an old Kroeberian, felt that the spirit of science was best represented in the Greek sense of systematic knowing.
As you point out, the physicalist obsession is heavily dependent on black boxes, but it also requires scotomas or blind spots, one of the most significant of which is the neglect of the cultural embeddedness of science. In his introduction to The Mismeasure of Man published in 1981, Stephen Jay Gould (who did not suffer this blind spot) wrote:
“Science, since people must do it, is a socially embedded activity. It progresses by hunch, vision, and intuition. Much of its change through time does not record a closer approach to absolute truth, but the alteration of cultural contexts that influence it so strongly. Facts are not pure and unsullied bits of information; culture also influences what we see and how we see it. Theories, moreover, are not inexorable inductions from facts. The most creative theories are often imaginative visions imposed upon facts; the source of imagination is also strongly cultural.”
In case my point is opaque (which my points often are), I’m suggesting that physicalism is an artifact of the Western cultural tradition, a culturally imposed impediment.