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There Is No Theory of Everything, by Simon Critchley

Stashed in: Awesome, Philosophy, Meaning of Life, Everything, THHGTTG, Physics, Stephen Hawking, Philosophy, Hive Mind, Coffee Talk

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Sorry Stephen Hawking but there will always be lingering doubt.

This is the risk of what some call “scientism” — the belief that natural science can explain everything, right down to the detail of our subjective and social lives. All we need is a better form of science, a more complete theory, a theory of everything. Lord knows, there are even Oscar-winning Hollywood movies made about this topic. Frank’s point, which is still hugely important, is that there is no theory of everything, nor should there be. There is a gap between nature and society. The mistake, for which scientism is the name, is the belief that this gap can or should be filled.

One huge problem with scientism is that it invites, as an almost allergic reaction, the total rejection of science. As we know to our cost, we witness this every day with climate change deniers, flat-earthers and religious fundamentalists. This is what is called obscurantism, namely that the way things are is not explained by science, but with reference to occult forces like God, all-conquering Zeus, the benign earth goddess or fairies at the bottom of my garden. Now, in order to confront the challenge of obscurantism, we do not simply need to run into the arms of scientism. What is needed is a clearer overview of the occasions when a scientific remark is appropriate and when we need something else, the kind of elucidation we find in stories, poetry or indeed when we watch a movie or good TV (Frank watched a lot of TV).

Science can explain that there are areas where you can't draw a direct causal conclusions: Chaos theory being one prime example, along with imprecision of measurement, Schrödinger's cat, Quantum mechanics, exponential probability spaces, etc.  The causes, effects, and mechanisms of personality, reactions to life's events within the lenses of culture, story, religion, and random thoughts and paradigms can be understood even if they can't be predicted with any precision.

The elucidation we find in stories, poetry, movies, TV, and literature in general, are scientific in a sense.  They generally consist of an algebra and calculus of ideas, motivations, well known algorithms, tropes, human nature, and neuroscience in other forms.  Study the techniques of literature, novel writing, the structure of screenplays, and you will find engineering and test methods rivaling a number of scientific and engineering disciplines.  The fact that there is great complexity and uncertainty doesn't mean that you must abandon science.

While there are plenty of fads around neuroscience, overusing or misinterpreting or deliberately misconstruing scientific evidence and conclusions, neuroscience itself isn't a fad.  Anyone paying attention to the steady stream of interesting and seemingly useful insights, often backed by verifiable scientific evidence, would have a hard time calling all of it a fad.

The problem with thinking and talking about these subjects is that the mind is so malleable and receptive to story and alternate models of explanation that it is difficult for the analysis to remain uncorrupted.  As soon as Freud explains his model, we can't help but to start thinking in those terms, building those mechanisms, and seeing hints and evidence of the model's truth.  Until we are exposed to the next model, when we start all over.  While considering many competing models will tend to prevent this problem, it is difficult to continue to be sure you're really free from all such biases.  Culture is constructed from many different ideas, some from literature and formal education, others from predominantly shared media, especially novels, movies, and music, but also sports, and various arts.  Some of these are fairly logical and objectively true while others are based on style, historical accident, or other possibly probabilistic history.  We're always operating and thinking through the resulting hierarchy of metaphor, strong in some areas, weak in others.

Interesting that an article that argues so strongly for specifics is making broad statements to bound science without being specific.

Yes, the article is guilty of violating its very philosophy of being specific!

The great thing about science is that it is self correcting as new observations come available. That is, it contains within its process a means by which to improve its collective understanding. 

The activity of philosophy begins with Socrates, who didn’t write and about whom many stories were told.

Plato and others, like Xenophon, wrote them down and we still read them. It is very often the case that the center of a vivid philosophical culture is held by figures who don’t write but who exist only through the stories that are told about them. One thinks of Sidney Morgenbesser, long-time philosophy professor at Columbia, whom I once heard described as a “mind on the loose.” The philosopher Robert Nozick said of his undergraduate education that he “majored in Sidney Morgenbesser.” On his deathbed, Morgenbesser is said to have asked: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?”

Why does philosophy never make progress?

People often wonder why there appears to be no progress in philosophy, unlike in natural science, and why it is that after some three millenniums of philosophical activity no dramatic changes seem to have been made to the questions philosophers ask. The reason is because people keep asking the same questions and perplexed by the same difficulties.

Wittgenstein puts the point rather directly: “Philosophy hasn’t made any progress? If somebody scratches the spot where he has an itch, do we have to see some progress?” Philosophy scratches at the various itches we have, not in order that we might find some cure for what ails us, but in order to scratch in the right place and begin to understand why we engage in such apparently irritating activity. Philosophy is not Neosporin. It is not some healing balm. It is an irritant, which is why Socrates described himself as a gadfly.

This is one way of approaching the question of life’s meaning. Human beings have been asking the same kinds of questions for millenniums and this is not an error. It testifies to the fact that human being are rightly perplexed by their lives. The mistake is to believe that there is an answer to the question of life’s meaning. As Douglas Adams established quite some time ago, the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything will always be “42” or some variation of 42. Namely, it will be something really rather disappointing. 

The point, then, is not to seek an answer to the meaning of life, but to continue to ask the question. This is what Frank did in his life and teaching. David Ellis tells a story of when Frank was in hospital, and a friend came to visit him. When the friend could not find Frank’s room, he asked a nurse where he might find Professor Cioffi. “Oh,” the nurse replied, “you mean the patient that knows all the answers.” At which point, a voice was heard from under some nearby bedclothes, “No, I know all the questions.” 

We don’t need an answer to the question of life’s meaning, just as we don’t need a theory of everything. What we need are multifarious descriptions of many things, further descriptions of phenomena that change the aspect under which they are seen, that light them up and let us see them anew. That is what Frank was doing with his quotations, with his rich variety of particulars. They allow us to momentarily clarify and focus the bewilderment that is often what passes for our “inner life” and give us an overview on things. We might feel refreshed and illuminated, even slightly transformed, but it doesn’t mean we are going to stop scratching that itch. In 1948, Wittgenstein wrote, “When you are philosophizing you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there.”

Allow me an odd postscript. Shortly after I learned the news of Frank’s death in 2012, I opened my email one morning to find a message from “Frank Cioffi.” I suddenly paused, as if someone had walked over my grave or scratched my skin with their nails. I then discovered that his namesake was Frank’s nephew, a professor of English at City University of New York, who was doing research into his uncle’s work. But that’s the great thing about one’s teachers. They never really die. They live on in the stories that we tell about them.

Simon Critchley teaches philosophy at The New School for Social Research, and the author of several books, including the forthcoming “Memory Theater,” his first work of fiction. He is the moderator of this series.

The point of "42" is not that it was disappointing.  It was that you didn't know the right question to ask, so getting the answer was worthless.  The only disappointment was in thinking that you would understand the answer so easily.  The answer itself might be profound, if you properly understood the question.  That was Adam's point inside the joke.

Ha! That makes sense. We should spend more time thinking of the right questions to ask. 

I love and miss Douglas Adams.

Yeah, he really has no true successor. 

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