The mechanical philosophy and mysterianism

Noam Chomsky published an essay on his web site a few years ago: Science, Mind, and Limits of Understanding.  Chomsky’s thesis is that there are areas of reality that science is simply incapable of understanding.  He uses as his principle example, the case of Isaac Newton’s understanding of gravity.

Chomsky acknowledges that this is a mysterian point of view, and that today it’s frequently referred to as “new mysterianism”.  But he argues that it isn’t really any different from the old mysterianism, which I think is right.  But he feels that current scientists are too dismissive of it, and that it should actually be called “truism.”

In the 16th and early 17th centuries, as early modern scientists started to pull out of ancient and medieval ways of thinking, one of things they developed was the mechanical philosophy.  This philosophy took the position that the universe can be understood as a machine that an artisan might build (such as a supreme artisan).  This meant a causal structure with only local and deterministic interactions, and without any magical or occult properties.  One of the traditional properties explicitly rejected was action at a distance, such as the action planets supposedly had on people’s health or fortunes.

For several decades, the mechanical philosophy was successful.  This was the scientific revolution, and much of it was enabled by that philosophy.  But there was one vexing problem that scientists struggled with: what determined how the heavenly bodies moved?

Ancient philosophers had proposed that the planets were embedded in nested crystalline spheres which rotated around the Earth.  Copernicus changed those spheres to rotating around the sun.  But Tycho Brahe observed comets crossing through where the spheres should have been, demonstrating that they didn’t exist.  So what controlled the movement of the planets?  Under the mechanical philosophy, there were numerous theories, but none succeeded in accurately predicting observations.

Isaac Newton solved this problem, and his solution demonstrates the danger of approaching a scientific problem with rigid preconceptions.  He demonstrated that the solution was gravity, the same gravity that makes an apple fall.  And he provided the mathematics that accurately predicted observations.

There was just one problem.  Newton didn’t know what gravity fundamentally was.  He fully admitted this, and just had to bracket that problem for his theory.  This caused many scientists to initially resist the theory.  He appeared to be introducing something they had worked hard to banish: action at a distance.  Eventually the predictive success of the theory forced them to accept it and move on.

Newton’s failure to fully understand gravity is Chomsky’s chief example of something scientists can’t know.  But he omits something from his historical discussion.  The puzzle of gravity was eventually solved.  Not in Newton’s time.  He and his colleagues had to just live with an awareness of ignorance of the core mechanism.

But two centuries later another scientist, Albert Einstein, in his theory of general relativity, figured out what gravity is: the warping of spacetime.  Crucially, this understanding removed action at a distance.  Matter and energy warp the spacetime around them, and the effects propagate at the speed of light, producing the effect we know of as gravity.  (It does raise the question of what spacetime is, but solving mysteries always seems to create new ones.)

So the mechanical philosophy was vindicated.  It was just that Newton and his contemporaries didn’t have the concepts yet to imagine the mechanisms involved.  The mechanical philosophy was back, at least for a few years before quantum mechanics called it into question again.

All of which is to say, Chomsky’s example was a temporary roadblock, not a permanent limitation.  That’s not to say that there may not be fundamental limits to what we can learn about reality.  It just seems unproductive to assume it in any particular case.

And it is true that science often has to do what Newton did, bracket off something that can’t currently be understood, and work with what can, while admitting ignorance of the thing bracketed.  But again, it never seems productive to assume these are permanent conditions.

Chomsky also weighs in on the mind-body problem, somewhat implying Newton proved idealism, and making comments about neuroscience and the philosophy of mind, asserting that mysterianism may have lessons for them.  There is definitely a significant portion of the philosophy of mind who agree.  Many seem convinced the mind has properties that will forever put it out of reach of science.  In principle, as noted above, this could be true.

But many also once thought the same thing about life.  With progress in organic chemistry and microbiology, that talk died away.  True, we still don’t know how life started, nor do we have anything like a full accounting of all its mechanisms.  But we know enough to see that life is a collection of mechanisms.

Will the mind be different?  Only time will tell, but my own reading of neuroscience gives little reason to think so, and history seems to weigh against it.

What do you think?  Am I being hasty in my dismissal of mysterianism?  If so, what are its benefits?

h/t Massimo Pigliucci

49 thoughts on “The mechanical philosophy and mysterianism

  1. No, you are spot on. Too many people want to preserve what they call the “mystery of life” and just keep pointing to things that turn out to only be mysterious to them.

    Newton wasn’t trying to “explain” gravity. He was showing two things: one that the movements of the planets were governed by a small set of simple rules and two, the force through which those rules manifested was right here in River City in the form of things falling toward the earth, rather than some other direction. So: here are the rules, and here is the mechanism by which they operate. Not, “here is why all of this works.”

    One could still claim that God was the source of this force and be perfectly comfortable. (Newton was clever enough to avoid any such trouble by inferring just that.)

    We still don’t know what gravity is. We just have descriptions that make sense to us and explain the behaviors of physical objects of a certain type. How is it that mass distorts space? Does anyone know?

    Space used to be just the field of play but now it seems to be a material player instead. Just how are space and mass related? How is it that space is expanding? (It isn’t this is just a misunderstanding.) We are still looking for a quantum theory of gravity that we suspect is “out there” and we just haven’t found it yet.

    The mysterians are still imposing their worldview upon nature instead of accepting that what we know is sitting in a gigantic pool of what we don’t know.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks.

      I’d say we understand gravity, we just don’t understand all its components yet. But our understanding does banish the action at a distance that bothered Newton’s contemporaries. So we understand it at the relevant layer of abstraction.

      But we don’t understand its constituents, the layers underneath. We might get that understanding someday, but it will likely leave us with new underlying layers we don’t understand.

      Agreed on the mysterians. Maybe they should be more mysterian about what we can or can’t know. Metamysterian?

      Liked by 2 people

  2. “Am I being hasty in my dismissal of mysterianism?”

    I have long thought so. You have an abiding commitment to scientism that, I think, biases you slightly in some areas. Science itself has discovered limits through Heisenberg, Gödel, Turing, Einstein, Cantor, etc. It is a fact there are things we can never know.

    “…but solving mysteries always seems to create new ones.”

    Exactly. Always. That’s the truism behind “truism.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I actually don’t see science as the answer to everything. It can’t tell us what to value or how to live, although it can inform those decisions. It can’t answer questions that are by their nature vague and ambiguous; although attempts are investigating them can help in sharpening the definitions.

      As we’ve discussed before, I see the issues you list as blind spots rather than absolute limitations. I will never be able to look at my own face, ever. But if I involve another system, such as a mirror or camera, I can look at a reflection or representation of it. Likewise, a system can explore its Godelian sentences and their subject matter by looping in external systems.

      On creating new mysteries, the question is whether it’s productive to just accept those mysteries as forever unsolvable, or regard them as only currently unsolvable. Maybe the main unknowable we should keep in mind is that we don’t know what is truly unknowable or how long it will remain so.


    2. I agree it is a fact that there are things we can never know, but I expect you may disagree when I say that what limits the things we can know is only the resources of the universe. As Mike describes in his comment, we can know about any system as long as we can access enough resources outside that system.

      Mysterianism, to me, is taking this fact about some things not being knowable, and applying them to situations where the limitations are not resources but are just our inability to determine the patterns given our current knowledge. Consciousness, for example, is nowhere near a question of resources.

      [the questions of what to value and how to live are likewise potentially knowable by science, but that’s a different topic]

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I like this article. Honestly I began reading a few things about physics yesterday and I’m interested in reviewing the basics for philosophical purposes. Moreover, I’d like to be optimistic and think that we will be able to solve at least certain problems of the mind through the cognitive sciences, I just don’t think it will be any soon

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    1. Thanks, and welcome!

      If you talk with most neuroscientists, they’ll tell you we’re probably at least a century away from a full understanding of the brain. But each thing that is learned constrains the possibilities. Meaning we have a very blurry picture today, but it’s far sharper than what we had 30 years ago. The picture will get increasingly sharper as time goes on.

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  4. Nice article. One of the concepts I noted from the Chomsky article was the old idea of “mechanical” requiring actual physical contact for causality. I didn’t appreciate how deep that went until you mentioned the planets being imbedded in celestial spheres just so that the physical contact thing would work. You can understand why action at a distance becomes a problem.

    What I didn’t see you are anyone pick out yet is that the new physics, especially quantum mechanics, turned everything around. There is no such thing as physical contact. Every action is action at a distance. It’s just that in certain cases, i.e., cases we’re used to thinking of in terms of physical contact, that distance is really small.

    I think this is why people have difficulty thinking about the “particles” of particle physics. They’re still thinking in the old mechanical terms of a physical particle that interacts with other particles by contacting them, as opposed to a wave-like thing whose probabilities of interacting are determined by distance. Sean Carroll has been putting out videos on general physics, and one of them addresses this aspect. I think it’s the one on “matter”.


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    1. Thanks James!

      The celestial spheres actually predate the mechanical philosophy by millenia. They were originally worked out by a student of Plato’s named Eudoxus. Eudoxus’ conception was actually mathematical. He didn’t necessarily take them to be physical, just a useful accounting device. Aristotle was the one who made them physical.

      The ancients had a concept of gravity. It was the tendency of the the element earth to go towards the center of the universe. Levity was the tendency of others, such as fire, to drift away from it. But it never occurred to anyone that it had anything to do with why the planets moved the way they did.

      With quantum mechanics, it depends on the interpretation you favor. There are some that preserve locality. But the only ones that preserve both determinism and locality come with costs many find unacceptable.

      I really need to spend some time watching those Sean Carroll videos. I watched one and was impressed, but haven’t had a chance to watch any of the others.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. James, I’m chiming in to agree about action at a distance. There are many physicists who regard quantum field theory as a more precise description of reality and “particle” talk as an extremely useful approximation. Also, rejecting the Locality assumption is a popular response to Bell’s Theorem (and Sean Carroll in particular goes that route).

      I think we need to distinguish between naturalism and mechanism. A universe where quantum fields are fundamental, particle-talk is a useful approximation, and space and time may even be emergent phenomena, doesn’t seem all that “mechanical” to me.


      1. Paul, thanks for the support. On the distinction between naturalism and mechanism: as you may know, my paradigm, which goes all the way down to causation and ontology, is input->[mechanism]->output. Are you saying mechanism isn’t the best term here, and if so, would you suggest another? The concept is “a thing (or system of things) that does something”. “Mechanism”, natural or not, seems the best fit to me.



          1. But process includes the stuff outside the brackets. And it loses of the concept of material substance within the brackets. I need a name for what’s inside the brackets. I guess “system” is a possibility, although that will be stretched when referring to really simple systems, like a rock.


          2. In IPO analysis it’s intended the “P” be a blackbox, so I’m not sure what you mean by “stuff outside the brackets.” If you do mean to restrict to the physical domain, then “mechanism” is as good as anything. IPO is meant to include both the physical and the abstract, although its emphasis is the abstract.


          1. FWIW, IMO: A mechanism has a boundary. It’s possible to be outside a mechanism and, more importantly, to affect a mechanism. Also, generally a mechanism is much (much) smaller than the universe.


          2. I think that matches a lot of people’s view. But if the mechanical philosophy is that the universe can be understood as a mechanism, then it would be one that we could not be outside of. We’d be faced with studying the overall mechanism from the inside.

            So maybe the question is, why would a mechanism have to be only a subset of the universe?


          3. I don’t share the mechanical view of the universe on the count that (in my view) mechanics is deterministic and the universe isn’t. (My view about separation of mechanism — which I think is crucial to the idea — simply rules out seeing the universe as a mechanism except in a metaphorical sense.)

            So it’s not really the question I would ask, is what I’m saying. 😀

            Where I think it gets interesting is studying the mind. That’s one (putative) mechanism that we’re both inside and outside of, and (as we’ve so often remarked) it’s that one foot on each side of the line thing that really adds a weird level of complexity to even really knowing what we’re talking about.


          4. I agree that if the universe is ultimately not deterministic, then that shoots the mechanical philosophy down. And it could be argued that even if it ultimately is deterministic, if we’re unable to cash out that determinism, then we’re unable to cash out the mechanical philosophy, rendering it metaphysical. It’s why I don’t think scientists should rigidly adhere to any philosophical doctrine while they do their work.

            I think the biggest challenge with the mind is that it’s us in the most intimate manner, which makes being objective about it extremely difficult.

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  5. I respectfully submit that the essay is a little bit unfair to Chomsky. Chomsky’s point I think is a bit more nuanced. If I were to distill it down, perhaps also unfairly, I think Chomsky was saying that some areas of knowledge may remain closed to our capabilities, as you appear to admit as well, but, more importantly, our hubris about our scientific capabilities (perhaps our current paradigms) has in the past closed our minds to broader insights.

    He uses as an example the development of physics and chemistry and correctly points out that “Chemical laws never would be reducible to physical laws” as was once thought. But after physics developed (the quantum revolution), physics was unified with chemistry, but not the reduction to physics that was assumed.

    Chomsky then points out that current studies of mind are troubled by the “explanatory gap” between the science of mind and neuroscience—like the old explanatory gap between physics and chemistry. Chomsky then wisely advises: “I think they would be well-advised to take seriously the history of chemistry.”

    Finally I disagree that it is unproductive to assume the correctness of Chomsky’s insights in the history of science. As Chomsky says in closing: “There is no contradiction in supposing that we might be able to probe the limits of human understanding and try to sharpen the boundary between problems that fall within our cognitive range and mysteries that do not.”

    But, I may be all wet.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thanks Matti. Obviously I disagree. I don’t think I was unfair to him. I get that his point is nuanced, but I don’t think it was nuanced enough.

      I didn’t find the point that chemistry didn’t reduce to physics in the way people expected, to be meaningful. Science often doesn’t progress in the way people expect. Similar to Newton’s difficulty, it represents a temporary roadblock, not some permanent limitation.

      On the “explanatory gap”, as I noted in the post, Chomsky’s repeated remarks that Cartesian dualism was a “perfectly respectable scientific doctrine”, and that Newton “exorcised the machine, leaving the ghost intact” implies idealism. “Hard problem” thinking usually figures pretty heavily in such views.
      Thankfully neuroscientists don’t appear to be heeding his advice.

      On his closing point, my point is that we need to recognize that one of our limitations is accurately predicting what our limitations are. Science has repeatedly busted through limitations people previously thought would never be breached. It doesn’t seem to be productive in any particular case to assume something is unsolvable.

      But maybe I’m the one all wet.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi Mike,
    I read Chomsky’s article and think I perceive his central argument a bit differently than you have described it. Chomsky’s essential point regarding gravity was that it ended the prior conception of the universe as a machine that could function only through direct physical contact of its various parts. This was a fundamental requirement of the mechanistic view of the cosmos. While Einstein’s theory demonstrated that matter imparts a “geometry” to space-time, this does little to restore the original aim of describing the universe as a machine that a superb artisan could build in his or her shop.

    I think Chomsky is well-read and smart enough to recognize the existence of the Einsteinian revolution, and probably felt it quite obviously does not restore the original condition of a universe that functions mechanically through direct contact between its parts. He addresses this, I believe, with this statement, The goals of scientific inquiry were implicitly restricted: from the kind of conceivability that was a criterion for true understanding in early modern science from Galileo through Newton and beyond, to something much more limited: intelligibility of theories about the world.

    He suggests that science has a history of discarding explanatory gaps, such as arguing for the preservation of a mechanical model by modifying the requirement for direct contact to the concept of influence. Likewise he argues that chemistry advanced quite well as a field by adopting Dalton’s method at the expense of considering the more fundamental physics, essentially resulting in another explanatory gap.

    It is important, I think, to remember that he started his career as a linguist, and that he opened and closed his essay with considerations of the creative use of language. And I think what he was ultimately suggesting is that a theory of “language and mind” finds itself in relationship to neuroscience in the same way that chemistry finds/found itself in relationship to physics. The end game may be recognizing that as often in the past, unification may not be reduction, but rather revision of what is regarded as the ‘fundamental discipline,’ the reduction basis, the brain sciences in this case.

    He also suggested, that as we humans are organisms, our cognitive abilities quite simply are limited by our biology, and he suggests that, much like rats or bees that are capable of solving some types of problems but not others, we may simply not possess the faculties to understand certain aspects of the universe. He suggests that we might very well in the future have an “intelligible theory” of “creative aspect of language and thought” but I think his caution is that this sort of intelligibility is not the same thing as comprehensive understanding. By which he simply means that there simply are, and have been throughout human history, elements of universe that we must concede, if we are honest, that lay beyond our ability to conceptually understand.

    This sort of mysterianism is not a call to stop thinking or working in these fields, but a call to be cognizant of the fact that we are by necessity dealing with only those concepts which we are equipped to traffic in. And to recognize that history has shown us repeatedly that our limitations have compelled us to settle for intelligible, rather than comprehensive, explanations. This simply means that what lays beyond our understanding is just that, no more and no less.


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    1. PS – one thing I didn’t say as clearly as I might have… another impression I had is that Chomsky’s reference to chemistry and physics is this: the sort of unification that ultimately came required a radical revision to the underlying physics, and even then was perhaps not the complete reconciliation intended. So I think he is saying that the “unification” of theories of creative uses of language and of thought with neuroscience may require a comparable, extensive and quite possibly radical revision to the field of neuroscience before such a reconciliation occurs.

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    2. Hi Michael,
      Why do you think imparting a geometry to spacetime doesn’t count as a mechanism? I’ll concede it’s certainly not the mechanism people in the 17th century had in mind, but it’s not unusual for the solution to be very different than what everyone originally expected. It restored locality, which was the issue people had with it back then.

      I agree that Chomsky should know about general relativity. I kept expecting him to mention it. In the end he didn’t, I suspect because it would have undermined his case. Saying that he didn’t mention it because of course it’s obvious that it doesn’t undermine his case doesn’t strike me as plausible. I personally need an explanation why it doesn’t.

      As I noted in the post, I do agree that 17th century astronomers did make a mistake by limiting their inquiries into solutions that would be obviously mechanistic to them. They should have looked to make progress any way they could, which is what Newton did, and defer the fully mechanistic explanation if necessary.

      On his comments about neuroscience, I think, frankly, he’s engaging in wishful thinking. Most of the science minded people in psychology are now also neuroscientists. And its changing the field in significant ways, ways that many old school psychologists and others in associated disciplines intensely dislike. The days of freewheeling hypothesizing unhinged from biological realities are over (or they should be). It’s not neuroscience that will change, but those other fields. (Well, they’ll all change, neuroscience included, but neuroscience is the disruptor.) Put another way, comparing fields like psychology and linguistics to chemistry is very flattering for psychology and linguistics. (Or insulting to chemistry.)

      My issue with talking about limitations is that one of our limitations is in accurately predicting where our limitations are. In the history of science, many things declared unknowable have subsequently been studied and learned about. We may have to bracket something temporarily to make progress where we can, but history shows assuming they’ll never be solved is short sighted.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Mike,

        What I said was that relativity didn’t restore the original mechanistic model, which is true. I was attempting to suggest why Chomsky didn’t spend a whole paragraph on it. Part of my point was that it wasn’t the only argument he made, because I felt as though you focused on that particular point to a greater extent than he had in his essay. There’s a tendency in debate or argument to take an idea, find the weakest link, show it to be vulnerable, and throw out the rest. I can’t speak for Chomsky, of course, but my impression was that he wished to point out that the notion of “bodies” as contiguous mechanical entities comparable to what could be produced in an artisan’s workshop was forever broken. The advent of electricity and magnetism, relativity theory and other modern physics developments do little to restore the previous vision of a mechanical universe. Is there any argument on that point? And I don’t think Chomsky is incorrect in noting that this involved a shift from the sort of explanatory power the mechanical model possessed, to evaluating theories on their “intelligibility” rather than their true explanatory capabilities. Do you?

        As to the warping of space-time being a “mechanism,” it is certainly not a mechanism in the manner that Chomsky described. It is an example of precisely what he described as occurring as science evolved–direct contact was supplanted by influence. At the same time, you’re absolutely right that science evolves. And that’s a good thing. And so what, right? So what if our concept of mechanism evolved from pistons and linkages to fields and the warping of distant space? I think the “so what” in the context of Chomsky’s essay is that we were forced to settle for descriptions that were intelligible, but that shifted the mystery someplace else. I’m not saying I agree with all of Chomsky’s points necessarily, but I thought you gave him short shrift by undermining a piece that contained multiple points by suggesting he blundered completely on his discussion of gravity.

        You said yourself that exactly how this works is unclear. By what mechanism does a star cause the geometry of space millions of miles away to deform? We have an “intelligible explanation” of this–the mathematics of relativity. But that is not quite the same as a mechanism. Prediction and explanation are not the same thing. And I think this is Chomsky’s point. No one can get up in front of a class of high school students and describe the physical linkages by which the presence of a mass dropped into the universe deforms the geometry of space-time. Perhaps because there are none. We don’t know. But I think Chomsky’s point holds there.

        As to the neuroscience, time will tell. I have no idea what will emerge, but I don’t think he’s crazy to think that that an ultimate alignment of theories of mind and brain will come at the cost of some notions held dear today. That’s scientific progress right? I appreciate that you react strongly to any suggestion that something may not be totally knowable, and I also think it’s a good and reasonable position. We won’t answer the questions we don’t ask. We agree on that–you just don’t like my questions very much. For me, the truth is that we don’t really understand how gravity works any better today than we did with Newton. We have a more accurate model of course. But it doesn’t give insight into the fundamental nature of matter or how it works. I don’t disagree with Chomsky on that point. Predicting outcomes is not the same as understanding the how or why of a particular phenomenon. And conflating the two is I think what Chomsky was cautioning against.


        Liked by 3 people

        1. Hi Michael,
          Well, I disagree with you about the warping of spacetime not being a mechanism. Certainly there are mysteries in it, but there are mysteries in any mechanism if you drill down enough. They key thing is that we now have a local explanation for how it works.

          “I appreciate that you react strongly to any suggestion that something may not be totally knowable,”

          I react against the notion that we should be confident in any particular case that it is so. And “totally knowable” is really overstating my position. I think we can have effective knowledge of many things, far more than many mysterians like to entertain.

          “For me, the truth is that we don’t really understand how gravity works any better today than we did with Newton.”

          This seems to be saying that since we don’t have absolute knowledge of all things involved, that we’re just as ignorant of how it works as Newton was. That’s a binary view of knowledge I find unproductive. If we follow it to its end, any knowledge is impossible.

          Newton’s theories couldn’t explain the precession of Mercury’s orbit or a number of other anomalies. And, again, the chief philosophical concern of Newton’s contemporaries was the action at a distance part. Einstein resolved that issue. And our ability to detect gravitational waves and use the information to learn things about unimaginably far away objects is completely grounded in knowledge we have that Newton didn’t.

          “Predicting outcomes is not the same as understanding the how or why of a particular phenomenon”

          I actually think the distinction between prediction (including retrodictions of existing data) and understanding is an illusion. We can talk about how accurately we can predict / understand something, or which aspects of it we currently can predict / understand, but to speak about one without the other is, I think, confusion. The predictions may not be testable, but to understand is to predict, and to predict is to understand. Again, I think we have to avoid the trap of binary thinking on this, a false dichotomy.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hi Mike,

            Your responses are largely based on a notion of productivity, which I can certainly appreciate. But in my experience you tend to elevate such conditional knowledge to the level of being absolute–using efficiency to dismiss ideas that don’t suit your view–and this is largely why we disagree over things I think. In this discussion the ideas are pragmatic and efficient, but if something is observed outside of the framework, it cannot exist.

            Einstein’s work astounds me, and has occupied hundreds of miles of highway on a number of road trips, much to the chagrin of others on board. Ha ha. But I don’t confuse his discoveries with the sort of knowledge that is truly comprehensive. Which means that I allow there is terrain outside of the particular purview of his system of thought that may very well exist, whether we deign to consider it or not. I’ve no issue with noting Einstein’s equations have more predictive power than Newton’s. I noted as such in my previous note.

            As to the distinction between prediction and understanding being illusion, this is the very heart of the debate between us I think, and the source of your dissatisfaction with Chomsky’s essay. I think, in the simplest sense, this was Chomsky’s point, and if you think it is moot, then of course his essay will not parse in a reasonable way to you. But I would argue, for instance, that it is precisely the sense of a gap between the two (prediction and understanding) which continues to drive scientists and philosophers alike (some of them at least) to better understand the quantum domain, as well as the relativistic one.

            The gap between the worldview I think you have, and the one that I have, is that I think there are possibilities for humanity that are, and will be, under-explored by the “mechanistic” view you personally favor. I think those under-explored potentials offer a great deal of potential value to our species, and to all species. I put “mechanistic” in quotes because I’m using the term as I think you are using it, when you note that a consistent mathematical relationship is equated with mechanism–as in relativity theory. This is a confusion of the map for the territory in my opinion, but I know we disagree.

            In your mind the map is the territory, and those who feel otherwise are promulgators of illusion. The thing is, Mike, and I don’t know if you can appreciate this point or not, for those like myself who view the map and the territory as quite possibly non-identical in some respects, the insistence on their identity is the imposition of an arbitrary constraint on inquisitiveness that functions identically to the constraint on inquisitiveness that you would ascribe to mysterians. It is ironic to me, to be honest, that at the end of the day we both have a tendency to perceive the other’s position as a hindrance to the success of our own.

            So let me be clear: I would never ask or argue that science call game over. I merely and respectfully ask that people such as yourself with an emphasis on productivity, pragmitism, and predictive efficiency not feel so threatened by ideas or suppositions beyond their orthodoxy, to the point of needing to refer to them, or the people who espouse them, in the pejorative, as has occurred here in the past. Such a position is quite the opposite of the ideas of acknowledging ignorance that you have written about of late, at least it is so in my opinion. You seem to apply the concept of ignorance as only being relevant to those who think differently than you do, and I am happy to be disabused of this notion, by the way. It is not my intent to cast aspersions. That is simply my experience. I believe it is important to respect the validity of a diversity of worldviews in ways that you may not, and yes, I think it is vitally important. I don’t, for instance, think science is anything but a worthwhile endeavor. I just think it is one part of the conversation, at least as the endeavor is framed here. And I think Mr. Chomsky tried to say this as well, in his uniquely eloquent manner.


            Liked by 1 person

          2. Hi Michael,
            I do lean toward pragmatism. (I rarely embrace any philosophy enough to say I am an X.) I don’t see this as a decision to limit my field of inquiry, but as an understanding of what the field is composed of. I’m always open to changing my mind about that, but while I often hear people say I’m artificially limiting my inquiry, what they then try to bring doesn’t incline me to think I’m making a mistake.

            I should note that I’m not dogmatically committed to the mechanistic view. I do find it a good set of assumptions about how reality works, and a theory that fulfills it gives me a nice warming feeling that maybe we’re on the right track. But as I noted in the post, it’s often not possible to achieve that level of understanding in a particular investigation, and we have to do what Newton did, bracket some difficulty and make progress where we can. But I think we shouldn’t get complacent about what was bracketed.

            I’m not sure what you mean in this context that I think the map is the territory, so I’m not sure if that’s true or not. I do think there is an objective reality, and there are our theories about that reality. A theory can only be assessed by how accurate it predicts future conscious experience. I don’t see any other metric. If you do, I’m curious to know what it is. But we can never be sure if our theory maps to reality the way we think it does. Ptolemy’s model of the universe predicted naked eye observations. It wasn’t until the telescope came around that it ceased being reliable knowledge. Any theory we have might suffer a similar fate, although any theory that replaces it has to at least replicate its predictive success.

            I try not to be pejorative, but I am a skeptic and do reserve the right to challenge ideas I find questionable. I thought Chomsky’s piece was mistaken and so I blogged about it. I’m pretty sure Chomsky won’t even notice. It’s not like his reputation is in any danger from me. As a skeptic, I’m used to be accused of closed mindedness. I’ll note that insisting that ideas can’t be criticized is itself a type of closed mindedness.

            Glad to hear you’re in favor of scientific investigation. I do think science is our best chance for understanding reality. As an old skeptic, it’s one of the few things that, as I learn more about it, gains credibility. Not that it can’t include it’s own questionable ideas, but the environment seems tougher for those ideas to last in.

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  7. Time for a quote from one of the great epistemologians of our age.

    “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know”.

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  8. The first thing God did, so far as we’re concerned, is create the universe. God is therefore a creator, first and foremost. Our universe is to God as a painting is to Picasso. It’s presumable that God, like Picasso, has a life outside of his paintings, where he is other things to other people. The point is, I don’t think it’s possible to sufficiently explain gravity without invoking metaphysical concepts. These, automatically, fall outside the domain of strict ‘science.’ They cannot be reduced to mere mathematical formulas. “Feelings,” to put it banally, must come into it…

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    1. Thanks for commenting. Like a painting to a Picasso, or a minecraft site to a bored teenager procrastinating on her homework.

      General relativity seems to do a pretty good job explaining gravity. Of course, it leaves us with having to explain spacetime. I suspect explaining spacetime would leave us with new questions.


  9. I guess I just discovered this post, via the link from your post today.

    “There was just one problem. Newton didn’t know what gravity fundamentally was.”

    We still do not know what gravity fundamentally is. I guess I’m agreeing with Chomsky on that.

    You seem to believe that gravity is the warping of space-time. But there’s a problem with that. Space-time itself is just a mathematical abstraction. Einstein’s theory gives better predictions than Newton’s theory. But it still fails to explain what gravity fundamentally is.

    Mechanism is great for making predictions and solving some problems. But, partly because of QM, I doubt that the cosmos is fundamentally mechanical.

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    1. I’d say your expectations for knowing what a phenomenon is may be too high. I’m not sure we ever get anything more than its components and what they do, which is what we have for gravity. Sure, spacetime can be considered a mathematical abstraction, but so can any entity in physics. In the end, I think predictive models are all we ever get. Even your knowledge of how to get from one side of your house to another is essentially a predictive model, one constructed in terms of your evolutionary affordances.

      Certainly understanding gravity in terms of spacetime bring up a new question: what exactly is spacetime? But I see that as a new thing to be explained. If and when we do get an explanation for it, it will be in new terms, with new constituents, that will again need to be explained. Eventually we may hit some brute layer of reality that can’t be further decomposed, but I suspect it won’t stop us from wondering what that base thing actually is. The same applies for the wave function and whatever it may actually be composed of.

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      1. “I’m not sure we ever get anything more than its components and what they do, which is what we have for gravity.”

        I agree with that. But the components come from us. We divide things into components. The world itself does not dictate how we divide it into components.

        “what exactly is spacetime?”

        Perhaps spacetime doesn’t actually exist.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Depends on what we mean by “exist”. What’s the old saying: “Space-time tells matter how to move; matter tells space-time how to curve.” In other words, spacetime is part of the causal chain. (Or interactive chain if the word “causal” is an issue.) That to me makes it real, even if it eventually turns out to be emergent from quantum entanglement or something else.

          But I’m a structural realist, so knowing the structure and relations, which general relativity, at least at some level of abstraction, seems to provide, is enough. Maybe by a different standard we wouldn’t consider it real? But then what would be real by that standard?

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          1. We measure local spacetime with our clocks and measuring rods. We then attempt to extrapolate this to the cosmos as a whole. But maybe it doesn’t extrapolate. Maybe there isn’t any property for the universe as a whole that coincides with our local notion of spacetime.

            That’s what I’m questioning when I wonder whether spacetime actually exists.

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