There are fragments left


Eric describes an odd thought experiment in Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.

He asks us to imagine a time in the future when people have got fed up with science, have removed science from the curricula of schools and universities, killed or imprisoned all the scientists, and then government is carried out — well, how, exactly? Since science is not only physics and math and chemistry and biology, but a fairly strict methodological approach to information, how would a government function where fact checking was ruled out, and decisions were based on pure whim? MacIntyre seems to forget that science is not only composed of lists of facts, but is tied together by theory and based on experience, and that that process can scarcely simply disappear when we stop teaching the sciences. However, imagine it done for the purposes of argument. Now, says MacIntyre, we are to suppose that a generation comes along which is opposed to this science-destructive world outlook. However, during the anti-science period the scientific tradition had been virtually destroyed. There are fragments left, a book here or a page there, and a few memories of phrases and scientific terms, like the periodic table without any sense of what it was once about. But now we are to imagine people trying to reconstruct science in the absence of any understanding of what science was once really about, so they begin using scientific language without really understanding what the language was for, or what it really signified. Science, for this new generation, is a bunch of disjointed technical terms thrown out more or less at random, and repeated pointlessly in a form much like some postmodernist free association.

In this situation, MacIntyre supposes, people would still have theories about how science functioned.

If the scientific tradition had been virtually destroyed, then on what grounds is the new generation opposed to this science-destructive world outlook? That idea doesn’t seem to make any sense.

The tradition is all but destroyed, so the new generation is unfamiliar with scientific thinking of any kind. The new generation is kind of like Sarah Palin or George Bush. What would there be in the heads of that new generation that would prompt it to oppose the science-destructive world outlook, let alone to try to reconstruct science in the absence of any understanding of what science was once really about?

Nothing, that I can see. People in 6th century Britain (say) didn’t sit around pining for science; they didn’t know from science.

MacIntyre seems to be thinking of it as a kind of cargo cult, but the periodic table wouldn’t attract people the way bottles of Coke do.

Some thought experiments just aren’t very good.

 

Comments

  1. Cafeeine says

    Some people may well make a ‘cargo cult” out of fragments of scientific knowledge, but that has no relation to the development or understanding of science. Heck, we have that right now in Deepak Chopra.

    The basic problem of the experiment is that science developed from the basic observation “things seem to work consistently. If we observe them more, we can see how they work”. It took centuries to whittle away all (ok,many but not all) of the biases and superstitions that hindered the process to this day. The same process could come about without any remnants of erstwhile research, as it is derived from observation of reality.

  2. says

    Yes but that wasn’t my question. My question was, given a world where science was just gone apart from a few meaningless-in-isolation fragments, why would younger people be drawn to “science”?

  3. brucegee1962 says

    I think that the fundamental flaw in this quote is that it rests on an assumption that the primitive understanding of the way the world works is somehow irrational. There is no evidence that people five thousand years ago were stupider than people today. They made observations, they applied Occam’s Razor, and they came to conclusions that seemed rational based on what they saw.

    One thing to bear in mind is that a large part of our brain is wired around figuring out social relationships and human agency. If we lived in a society that didn’t know anything, it would be eminently logical to make an assumption that events we didn’t understand were caused by human-like agency that we couldn’t see.

    The mountain is smoking, and the land around it is hot. Fire is also hot. Men are the only creatures who use fire. Perhaps there is a man who lives underground and uses fire.

    When there is a storm, there are loud noises and things get destroyed. When people get angry, they often make loud noises and destroy things. Maybe storms are caused by an angry man who lives in the sky.

    Lacking any means of testing our hypothesis, could anyone really accuse it of being illogical?

    I don’t think there was anything inherently unscientific about the people who created those myths. The unscientific part came later, when people said they knew for sure that the man under the mountain and the man in the sky existed, and furthermore, that their knowledge made them entitled to an exalted place in our society and would lead to punishment for anyone who questioned their existence.

  4. Shatterface says

    Actually, this sounds like Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

    Its set some thousands of years after a nuclear war and written largely in an invented dialect. The history of the nuclear holocause has become confused with their genesis myths so they talk of ‘the splitting of the Littl Shyning man, Addom’. People are kept ignorant by an orthodoxy church run from Canterbury.

    And there’s Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia Trilogy. Its set on a planet orbiting a star which is itself in eliptical orbit around a brighter binary star so there are massive environmental changes happening periodically. In the centuries during Winter the population are pretty much holed up in caves, kept ignorant by an oppressive priesthood; as summer approaches they can explore the world themselves, and then there’s a renaissance period. Ultimately they are driven back to their caves by the approaching winter (the book was written in the Eighties and the final volume is clearly a metaphor for nuclear winter).

    Then there’s Harry Harrison’s Captive Universe. The population of a generation starship have been seperated so that there is a technocratic elite who have some scientific knowledge but no curiosity, and a more imaginative tribe kept in ignorance and superstition by a priesthood. (Harrison is an atheist, and his work was what prompted to ‘out’ myself as an atheist at school). As the ship reaches its destination the tribes can mix, their genes mixing to reform the enlightened human race we know and love.

    So what’s needed to recreate the scientific method from fragments of science? Empirical experience, and the overthrow of religious power.

  5. Cafeeine says

    The “science” described in the thought experiment has pretty much the hallmarks of UFO sighting, and would be attractive for pretty much the same reasons as UFOs are.

  6. says

    Still answering a different question.

    With science gone, how do new people become motivated to reconstruct “science”? When they don’t know what it is, what makes them think they want it?

  7. says

    Oops, I crossed with Caffeine – that is an answer.

    I don’t know, the periodic table doesn’t sound much like a UFO to me!

    If it were something like that, that would make sense. But it doesn’t sound as if it is something like that…unless he had in mind some fancy equipment. That would work.

  8. Cafeeine says

    I see what you’re saying. Part of the problem is that the premise is vague. To claim that the “scientific tradition is destroyed” comprehensively could set humanity back before agriculture, at which point questions of science would be superfluous. The way its formulated leaves it open to too many interpretations.

  9. earwig says

    What brucegee says. Hardwiring for curiosity and joining up dots and leaping to conclusions. Hypothesising, in other words. Add in argumentativeness. (I don’t need to cite for that human trait, do I?) If anything, formal religion is a brake on natural curiosity, which is why it is so powerful and should be opposed.

    No, I can’t prove that humans are innately curious and hypothesising. I can only offer the example of children before they’ve been got at by formal education.

  10. says

    earwig – but that’s a different question. That’s “would humans eventually reinvent science?” My question was why would young people who’d never known any science decide to try to reconstruct a disapproved-of mysterious thing called “science”?

    Innate curiosity isn’t enough to answer even the first question – don’t forget it took millions of years. Hundreds of thousands of years from the time humans had modern brains.

  11. earwig says

    Fair cop, Ophelia. But I think curiosity+ might also apply to fragments. Think how desperately people try to reconstruct anything – civilisations from a few potsherds, a man’s face from a (n allegedly) sweat-stained shroud.

    It’s a crazy premise anyway. It gets harder and harder to destroy evidence, traces, ideas.

  12. earwig says

    But they couldn’t reconstruct a scientific theory from an unexplained periodic table any more than they could construct a computer from an operating manual. They might try…

    …then there’s always the power kick: when someone gains a better insight he can claim superiority and therefore power. And women! And money!

    So, lots of pitfalls on the way to enlightenment. It is astonishing that we ever got as far as we have.

  13. says

    …then there’s always the power kick: when someone gains a better insight he can claim superiority and therefore power. And women! And money!

    Um, because only men can gain better insight and women are naturally objects to be claimed just like power and money? Thanks for that.

    On your question, Ophelia… When something is mysterious, it has an allure unto itself–think deciphering hieroglyphs or attempts to figure out Linear A. Add in the spice of something forbidden and rebellious and young people probably would want to recreate it.

  14. thephilosophicalprimate says

    The problem with the thought experiment is that it isn’t a thought experiment at all — it’s an extended analogy. But the situations MacIntyre tries to say are analogous are not plausibly analogous, and the fault lies with MacIntyre not thinking deeply about — and indeed, not really knowing anything about — the nature of science. The story he tells about the manifold failures of modern ethical theory winds up being fairly interesting and even rather plausible in spite of this ill-considered analogy, not because of it.

  15. sailor1031 says

    “…how would a government function where fact checking was ruled out, and decisions were based on pure whim?”

    It’s been tried – numerous times. Such societies were called “kingdoms”…

  16. Sastra says

    Why would young people who’d never known any science decide to try to reconstruct a disapproved-of mysterious thing called “science”? Power. Ancient wisdom.

    I suspect the tendency of the old to wax nostalgic about the past is embedded in human nature. In the young this can translate into a tendency to romanticize the past. Things were somehow “better” then. Purer. Closer to the Source of truth, before everything started to degenerate and sweet babies who had everything easy turned into crabby old people who had to work hard.

    I suspect that in the situation described there would be rumors that science made a person powerful. They once used it to ‘do things.’ Science must have been some other form of special revelation. A competing form.

    You can see hints of that today in people who accuse science of being a religion. The public keeps trying to import mysticism into it, with stories about breakthroughs coming all at once, as if by magic.

  17. reneerp says

    This thought experiment reminds me of Samuel Delaney’s “Ballad of Beta-2″ and part of Alfred Bester’s “The Stars My Destination” which means it’s reasonable science fiction, but not much more than that. If people received only fragments, there’s no way for them to know that these are fragments. Why would they even suspect that there’s something underlying these broken patterns?

  18. Godless Heathen says

    Isn’t this what happened after the Dark Ages during the Renaissance and Enlightenment? Rediscovering and reinventing science? (to some extent, at least).

  19. says

    It strikes me that the young ones would try to reconstruct science just for the fun of trying. It also strikes me that they would fail. They would end up with a shared mythos, like Star Trekers or Baker Street Irregulars, though those two have much more material to work with. They would call themselves Scientists, but their deductions would have as much relevance as does the precise date of `The Corbomite Maneuver’ or `A Scandal in Bohemia’.

    Only when people discover for themselves something analogous to the periodic table would the periodic table be recognised for what it is and then, no doubt, be widely condemned because it didn’t match the mythos that the Scientists had built up.

  20. says

    Most dictionary definitions I have looked into start with the word ‘knowledge’ and the elaborate or refine from there. The seeking of knowledge, and the increasing measure it gives of one’s environment, is part of the human condition, going right back through tens of thousands of years of pre-agricultural time.

    The more facts are known, the more systematisation and explanatory systems appear to have been sought.

    One of the oldest of such inferences arguably started with the observation that dry unpalatable grass gives way to lush green grass highly attractive to game species following a fire in the savannah. So the deliberate setting of grass fires became a common practice of hunter-gatherer peoples in Africa, Australia and elsewhere.

    Just one of the many beginnings of science.

  21. says

    #22 I should add is an attempt to answer Ophelia’s question: “If the scientific tradition had been virtually destroyed, then on what grounds is the new generation opposed to this science-destructive world outlook? That idea doesn’t seem to make any sense.”

    Intrisically, I would say. Particularly if they wanted to eat.

  22. says

    My current favourite book, The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch, talks about how science recently emerged.
    http://beginningofinfinity.com

    The book discusses the rapid progress we’ve seen since the Enlightenment, and its cause: the rational quest for good explanations.

    Good explanations (scientific theories and such) are inherently robust, and ultimately persist due to this advantage (a natural selection of memes). But you still need original creative ideas to get things started, followed by continuous criticism.

    [friendly civil thoughtful passionate criticism of ideas, not people]

  23. earwig says

    Ibis3:

    …then there’s always the power kick: when someone gains a better insight he can claim superiority and therefore power. And women! And money!

    Um, because only men can gain better insight and women are naturally objects to be claimed just like power and money? Thanks for that.

    Sorry. You’re right to pick me up on it. I idly assumed history would repeat itself and only men’s insight would be valued, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Not even if humankind becomes unscientific.

  24. B-Lar says

    The same reasons that we made science in the first place.

    Recognising that the truth is the only thing to base our decisions on if we want a hope of making the right decisions, recognising that reality is the only benchmark for truth, recognising that empiricism is the only way of examining reality, and recognising that unless you present your findings honestly, it isnt truth.

    Truth is the beacon that leads people to walk the path of science.

  25. says

    But they don’t know that science has anything to do with truth. They don’t know what it is. That’s the problem.

    But philos primate explained that it’s not a thought experiment at all, it’s an extended analogy that doesn’t work because MacIntyre didn’t think much or know much about science. That was my basic point – the whole idea makes no sense because MacIntyre uses the word in a cargo-cultish kind of way.

  26. Godless Heathen says

    I’m getting really confused (and don’t have time to read the linked post right now-work and all).

    I think what’s tripping me up is this idea that all our scientific knowledge could be nearly completely destroyed so that all that remains are some indecipherable fragments. I can’t imagine a situation in which it’s possible that all the scientific knowledge in the entire world would be destroyed.

    I also agree with the commenters arguing that people would still use the scientific method, or, at least, empirical methods, to some extent because that’s what humans do. They look at what happens in the physical world and try to tease out patterns in their observations. I don’t see how that would go away.

    Anyway, I will read the original post at some point and maybe things will become clearer.

    Or maybe not.

  27. Roger says

    ‘given a world where science was just gone apart from a few meaningless-in-isolation fragments, why would younger people be drawn to “science”?’

    Well, the tendencies which ultimately lead to science (and to religion and philosophy) appear to derive naturally from the way our brains work: the tendency to draw conclusions about how things work and to hypothesise things we can’t see to expalin how they work is probably innate. The fragments won’t be in isolation for very long and humans will impose meanings- right or wrong- on them.
    Many great scientists only became scientists posthumously, when the word was invented, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t been making science. In fact, ‘MacIntyre seems to forget that science is not only composed of lists of facts, but is tied together by theory and based on experience’ has things the wrong way round. Science is one of the ways tie to together observations and lists of facts as theories. It works better than other ways so eventually becomes more powerful than them. It’s also worth remembering thar empirical techniques derived from trial and error can be pretty effective without being scientifically justified; you could call them ‘unconscious science’, I suppose.

  28. says

    “it’s not a thought experiment at all, it’s an extended analogy that doesn’t work because MacIntyre didn’t think much or know much about science.”

    It is possible to obliterate knowledge; to make it inaccessible to whole populations of people. The Dark Ages in Europe were dark partly because the classical documents, teachers and traditions of observation and thought were no more, and had to be rediscovered. At least part of the obliteration was deliberate (eg the Alexandrian Library.)

    But despite opposition from the Church, it all slowly got going again, largely via maritime trade. And even a Sarah Palin is in favour of that.

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