Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Of Science, Philosophy of Science and pseudo-science (aka Humanities)

Reviewing my reading log for 2014 I confirm that I've been very focused on History (economic history, cultural history, social history, history of ideas, but at the end of the day I mostly read about what people did, built, exchanged, thought and published in the past). Well, when I've not been reading Freud, which forces me to go on a small sideways rant that towards the end of the post will turn out not to be so much of a distraction, as it has lots to do with the main argument I want to develop:

Beginning of rant:

To put it colloquially: "dude, what's up with this fella?" yesterday I could not avoid chuckling when finding (in a little volume entitled "The origins of psychoanalysis" containing his early correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess) the first draft of his paper on the aetiology of neuroses (a condition that deserves its own historical perspective, as I am more and more convinced it was a sick invention of the era's shrinks, albeit they probably did it unconsciously -something psychologists, as well trained as they are nowadays in identifying unconscious biases, tendencies and ideas in others, seldom perceive in themselves). He asserted with an absolute confidence worthy of better uses that in the origin of every neurasthenia was the frequent masturbation of the subject (so there you are, kids: stop jerking off so much or you will end up neurasthenic, whatever that may be). But the bad news didn't end there: any sexual practice within marriage that was not geared to reproduction (from using a condom to coitus interruptus; I can only wonder what the good doctor thought the frequent practice of oral and/or anal sex may cause...) accelerated the onset of the condition, and ended up in complete impotence of the husband. That impotence, in turn, caused the wife to become hysteric (not with laughter, mind you, that would be a very modern interpretation of the term... typical hysterical symptoms for Freud were paralysis, temporary loss of conscience, obsessive behavior, loss of speech and a long etcaetera). He supposedly had confirmed the link between onanism, neurosis and impotence in "hundreds of instances" (he didn't have that many patients in those times, so we have to adjust for some exaggeration on his part), as to not allow the slightest sliver of doubt about it. About something we do know, as clearly as anything can be known by man, that is utterly, uncompromisingly, unhesitatingly, undoubtedly, unambiguously, blatantly and almost self-evidently false. Not just slightly false, or even your run-of-the-mill, based-on-a-mistaken-impression false, but flabbergasting false, all-the history-of-mankind-tells against-it false. To put it in non-academic terms, it's bullshit. A load of crap. Baloney, malarkey, an intellectual legerdemain of the highest order.

It could be argued that Freud was just starting in life, feeling the waters, and that his great discoveries about the unconscious and their consequences for human well-being and the structure of society were still in the future. A youthful indiscretion of an otherwise brilliant and most excellent sage, towards whom we are still much indebted. Indeed, the paper on sexuality in the aetiology of the neuroses dates from 1898 (when he was already 42 years old, not exactly a young gun), but let's have a look at a position the doctor held much later in his life, as found in Civilization and its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur), published in 1929. We can find there the opinion that civilization and women (yep, he used to talk in those generalizing, slightly patronizing terms) are opposed. Although civilization started because of the love men felt by women (love for him was another name for the desire to bang 'em... even when applied to one's own children, or to the whole of humanity, it was just "inhibited-aim" love, where the real goal -bangin'- had been replaced by a more easily attainable object not to expose the subject to the pain and suffering of a potential rejection), women soon become an obstacle to it, as they were (are) constitutionally incapable of diverting their psychic energy to "higher" goals as men do, and kept attracting them to "home and sexual life" instead of improving culture through those higher pursuits they alone can follow.

So there you are, and I'm breaking no new ground here: the founder of that "crowning achievement of Western civilization, psychoanalysis, that completes the original Greek injunction to know thyself" was not only a crackpot that spouted theories off his cuff without much care about how well they fit with real observation, but stayed all his life subjected to a rigidly traditional and misogynistic worldview were half of humanity (women) were just defective versions of the other half, slaves to their passions and unsuited for speculative intellectual work.

The real core of my dissertation work, by the way, is trying to understand how a whole society accepted that claptrap not only without derision, but giving it the highest recognition. It befuddles me beyond description that not only are there still people who profess to be "psychoanalysts" and that talk about the founder in a highly respectful way, but that some of them are women.

End of rant

Whew, that felt good! now, back to my original train of thought, so I read mostly history these days (leaving aside the occasional delirant writings of a XIXth Century Viennese guy trained originally as neuropathologist), although it was not always like that. In my youth I was a science nut, and (apart from numerous servings of fiction) that's what I mostly read: physics, chemistry, astronomy, cosmology, biology... and then of course my first career, power engineering, which where and when I studied was mostly nuclear engineering. From that time I still keep not only a burning passion for knowing how things "really are", but also a more than passing acquaintance with the very distinctive way we have developed in the last four centuries for ascertaining it: the scientific method.

So it drives me bananas every time I see that method (and I don't want to go in the discussion about it being a "method", or a mindset, or a program) conflated with other disciplines, be it to degrade it (what we may call the "postmodernist" twist: Science is just another  ideological construct used by the powerful to subjugate the powerless, and its "truths" are socially constructed statements, equivalent as to the validity of their truth-values to any other statement within any other type of discourse) or to somehow exalt it aver and above any other human interest (which has the unfortunate consequence of hectoring the rest of human fields of research to be "more like -true- science", as exemplified in this now famous exchange between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier: Science vs Humanities III round in which I side wholeheartedly with the latter, and which made me realize what a doofus the "neurolinguist", or whatever fancy title he sports these days, happens to be).

What I see once and again in those debates is that a) with some honorable exception (Spain's Jesus Mosterin, with whom I disagree in many, many things, would be one) most people coming from the humanities are pretty clueless about what Science does or aspires to; but b) Scientists who occupy themselves with those arguments (which make them suspect scientists in the first place) are even more clueless about most humanistic disciplines, and tend to end up parroting, without knowing, the opinion of some long dead philosopher or social theorist but in less subtle and illuminating ways.

So I'm going to take the advantage of writing "the world less read blog" to give my two cents of opinion in the subject of what differentiates both approaches to understanding the world, and where each academic field belongs. For simplicity's sake I'm going to call the two approaches "Science" and "Humanities", and hope that by the end it is clearer what I mean with both. I'll try to do it with aphorisms, as what I've written so far in this post, being just the introduction, is already too long:

S.1 The best definition of Science is still the one given by Aristotle: "the discourse on the necessary" (on that which can not conceivably be any other way)

S.1.1 Thus by definition Science deals with universal & eternal truths, it seeks those rules that apply everywhere and every time, and which are observer independent

S.1.2 A universal statement can never be definitely proved (unless all the instances of its major and minor premises were empirically verified, which in most cases is impossible within a finite human life, or even within the aggregated life of the full species), but can be disproved by a single instance that contradicts it. Thus a feature of scientific statements is that they should be subject to disproof (in Popper's terms: "falsifiable")

H.1 Humanities deal with what is distinctively human in the cosmos (the universe perceived as orderly): the fact we are conscious and can communicate recursively about that consciousness with other beings that appear to us as being conscious too

H.1.1 Thus by definition the Humanities deal with the most contingent of all: the isolated features of each conscience, in its unique and ireplicable set of circumstances

H.1.2 Humanistic statements are not subject to proof or disproof, they can be endlessly argued, and some arguments can be more convincing than others (better connected to a wider network of accepted meanings, fruitful to guide thinking in new and unexpected but internally consistent paths)

So far we have covered pretty common ground, immediately evident when you start studying a STEM subject (Where nobody cares if Bernoulli's theorem was actually discovered by Bernoulli, or who Bernoulli was, as the validity of the theorem is established with independence of who it is named for) as opposed to a humanistic subject (where the fact that an opinion was held by Aristotle carries a lot of weight by and in itself, and is always open to new interpretations and discussion about how it relates with everything else)

S.2 there are only two main sciences: Physics (includes astronomy, cosmology, thermodynamics, structural dynamics, materials science, particle physics and so on and so forth) and Chemistry (includes molecular biology, biochemistry, etc.) and it could be argued that they are really only one (since the material properties of the different elements and compounds derive from the structure of their outer electron layer it could be argued that Chemistry is a part of Physics)

S.2.1 Once a scientific field is mature enough to admit of practical applications, the heuristic rules for applying it to everyday use (that enable the science to translate into a technology) coalesce in a discipline called engineering (thus civil engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, etc.) Engineers are not scientists, and have to be just conversant enough with the underlying science to apply it to their respective fields (so, not much). The particular class of engineers that deal with complex biological systems (to repair or enhance them) are called physicians (and any of their specialities), or veterinarians

S.3 Biology is not a Science... so far. It comprises a lot of interesting observations about life in this planet (the only one we have found so far) and a stupendous overarching principle (the "theory" of evolution, which describes with awesome parsimony how in extraordinarily circumscribed and precise circumstances life has adapted here and acquired its current complexity... although many have lately tried to apply it as a universal principle to the whole cosmos what they have produced so far is at best interesting speculation, and at worst metaphysical hocus pocus), but no universal rules, no "natural laws" so far that allow for any kind of prediction or that admit of being falsified.

H.2. there are countless Humanistic disciplines (and each Century seems to bring some new ones): History, Sociology, Psychology, Anthropology, Literary criticism, Economics, Politics... None of them are sciences (thus "Political Science" or "Economic Science" are pretty ugly and conceptually confusing oxymorons, even when they are the titles for some University careers, and academics in those fields may even consider themselves scientists)

H.2.1 The equivalent of engineers in the humanities are "philosophers of". Almost for all humanistic discipline there is a "meta field" of study to identify the different currents, trends and underlying assumptions that operate in them that require just enough knowledge of the discipline to write authoritatively about it, but not as much as to make advances IN it. Thus philosophers of mind, of sociology, of history, political philosophers... (even philosophers of science!)

That's it for today, in my next post I'll probably tackle, given those generic truths, what each discipline can and cannot claim to tell us about what we can know, what we can hope, and what we should do

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