Facts, Theory and What is Important?

Mike Flynn and William Briggs have both been discussing, each in their own inimitable style, the foibles and follies of modern Science! and its legions of devotees and sycophants, here, here, and here. An endless, unpleasant task. Both Sisyphus and the Augean Stable come to mine.

File:Aristotle in Nuremberg Chronicle.jpg
Nice hat.

One point TOF mentions here, one he has brought up occasionally in the past as well, is that a fact is, at its roots, a thing made – the product of an effort. That effort involves a theory, most often unconscious, of what is worthy to be be noticed and how it is to be taken. This seems to me commensurate with Aristotle’s concept of a ‘this’, something that by its nature steps out of the background as perceived by us, in accordance with our nature. Nothing is more natural, so to speak, than a man noticing a horse. However, if I were not human, but rather a gigantic intelligence whose nature it was to notice, say, ecosystems over time, that same horse, being as horsy as ever, might not step out for my notice. Instead, for this imagined intelligence, an ecosystem might be a ‘this’, and a horse no more noticeable than an individual hair on that horse to a human being.

The point here, besides noticing again how cool and simultaneously subtle and obvious Aristotle can be, is that it is of our nature to notice some things and not notice others. On a completely natural level, in the sense of what happens always or for the most part, we tend to notice things that are relevant to our happiness or survival. No surprise there – Darwin would say as much, I suppose.

Such noticing is the first step in making a fact. By the time we say or think ‘that’s a horse’, theory has entered in it – a whole theory of horses, including the criteria by which we identify a largish quadruped as a horse, not a cow or an elephant. This theory is so natural that we usually fail to notice we’re using it. Even less would we imagine questioning the validity of our Horse Corollary (the OK Corollary, perhaps?) to our Theory of Everything by which we live.  We would never imagine doubting it without the ‘help’ of the likes of Descartes, Hume and Kant. In our day to day lives, anyone who acts as if this theory isn’t true is taken away by the men in white coats. People who talk as if they doubt it tend to be confined to universities, for their and our safety.

Of this big Theory of Everything, by which things separate themselves out from the background for our notice according to our nature, science is a partly a subset and partly a development. In other words – Aristotle’s – we need a theory of Form and Matter to do science.  Things have to be and have natures before we can, within this theory, create facts by studying them. To pretend otherwise is baffling, to say the least – names, language, communication are all predicated on this theory, and are meaningless without it (sorry, Kant et al).

Not happening. One or both are thinking: Lunch!

But let’s back up a couple steps. It might be tempting to think that this Theory of Everything is mere animal nature – don’t lions and rabbits do as much? They scan the background for prey or elil, respectively, and note them and, it may be presumed, make facts according to some leonine or lapine theory. Yet human nature, despite myths of Mogli, has first of all distinguished between man and animal. Almost always and almost everywhere outside a PETA meeting, human beings have recognized the obvious difference. There’s another layer to human nature, a higher nature, that is what allows us to make facts from sense perceptions.

Why would people think this? Is it just speciesism? Chesterton, in his amusing way, notices that birds don’t build nests by choosing properly arched twigs that express their spiritual aspirations. People do the equivalent, and a million other things nonsensical within a Darwinian world shaped by natural selection. (It’s amusing to note that the people most adamant about the all-explaining power of evolution don’t, you know, have more babies than other people, which certainly seems inconsistent. On the other hand, they do seem to be overrepresented among people in favor of the extermination of peoples they would not wish their offspring to breed with – way too many of those brown and black babies out there, don’t you know? That is at least consistent.)

No, it seems human nature isn’t just inclining us to notice those things which figure into our survival and reproduction. We also pay a lot of attention to a lot of other things as well – writing blog posts and playing the piano, for example, even though those activities burn resources and don’t contribute to survival.

Here’s the point of all this: which, typically, has a stronger hold on a man’s interest – scientific investigation or his mother? Does a happy man care more about the Unified Field Theory or his own children? What is a more important fact to ascertain: the boiling point of water at 1 atmosphere, or why your son seems down today?

Trying to fit the second set of answers into a world where only the first set is seen as worthy is a decision, a choice few happy people would ever make. Instead, isn’t it more sane to spend effort and apply understanding to the whole world we live in, filled with people we love and institutions with claims on our loyalty and energy, than to try to use a highly specialized method designed to tease out facts from the metrical properties of physical bodies on EVERYTHING?

It is a decision. You can have a Theory of Everything in which knowledge about other people and your duties toward them are the most important things. If your archetypical fact is that you love your wife, a fact as certain, more certain, even, than that 2 + 2 = 4, won’t the insistence that only facts that can be ascertained with a ruler and thermometer are *real* facts seem crazy?

A philosopher, I contend, has chosen – it is a choice – to embrace a theory under which facts about his family, city and nation are primary facts, the archetype of facts. It’s a feature, not a bug, that our knowledge of such ‘soft’ things is never complete, and often woefully sketchy. Yet they are worthy of our effort in a way that math and science will never be worthy. Science and math may enable us to build the bomb, but have nothing to say about whether we should then use it to vaporize another man’s wife and kids.

A man who has chosen to make the facts of science his archetype of what a fact is has chosen poorly. He cannot consistently live in accordance with his choice, as it fails to allow for any useful understanding of what it is that makes life worth living.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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