Monday, March 31, 2014

The Roots of Instrumentalism and Mysticism in Science

Some of the earliest personifications of nature were the projections of God as a king and a lawmaker. In prehistoric, low-tech societies, the most important inventions, after language and the ego themselves, were the hunting tribe and then the Neolithic village. Laws were needed to maintain the social order and ancient theists and animists understood the rest of the world to be similarly regulated by hidden personages. The supernatural world was just an invisible social order in which the absolute ruler and his aristocrats and entourage created and governed the natural world much as we construct our microcosmic societies, that is, our tribes, civilizations, empires, and so on, as oases from the wilderness.

That kind of personalizing cognition became obsolete with modern objectification. We still habitually personify ourselves and each other, because we’re too proud to consider ourselves animals, but the fictional characters of the gods died in importance for most of the modern intelligentsia. Instead of a remote social realm, there were just more and more objects, as scientists discovered; for example, the lights in the sky turned out to be stars, not gods. Coincidentally or not, the pace of Western technical innovations quickened with the Renaissance and then with Industrial Revolution, just as modern scientists from Copernicus to Newton, and Darwin to Einstein used their new methods of discovery and mathematical description to model nature as a machine. The philosophy of deism prevented the masses that still depended on the old gods for their sanity and morality, from revolting against science for having depersonalized the universe and banished the gods to nowhere. For a time, informed people could think of the universe as a self-regulating machine designed by a great architect. But given the modern biologist’s mechanical explanation of the design of organisms and the quantum physicist’s account of the creation of universes from chaos, the cosmicist implications of modern objectification are logically inescapable. People are outgrowths of impersonal systems; we’re not metaphysically fundamental and so we ought to feel alienated from automated nature. Luckily, most people can’t hope to follow the scientist’s logic nor are they interested in following it, in the first place, because even as science undermines our comforting fictions, applied science is a cornucopia of goodies which distracts us from the ghastliness of the hand that feeds us.   

As modern scientists came to see nature in its corporeal splendor, through their telescopes and microscopes, they depersonalized themselves, developing the scientific institutions and using experiments to circumvent their prejudices and the prevailing dogmas, to explain what they saw. Thus, the world’s undeadness came to match that of nature’s heralds. Of course, scientists were prone to the same animalistic tendencies as the rest of us: they bickered, harbored resentments, and competed for power in their dominance hierarchies; some even worked feverishly on theological problems, as in the case of Isaac Newton. But the scientific methods themselves coldly detach hypotheses from such messy social contexts, algorithmically sorting adequate from useless models. In short, science became a social machine to mirror the natural systems that were measured with ever greater exactness by the extended senses in the laboratories.

Engineering and the Undeadness of Natural Machines

Two kinds of scientific worldviews emerged from those revolutions, which I’ll call the engineer’s and the mathematician’s. These worldviews aren’t scientific theories, but tendencies in science to interpret theories according to different naturalistic assumptions. Moreover, the point isn’t that all professional engineers and mathematicians line up on one side or the other, but that these two flavors of naturalism arise especially out of those two disciplines. That is, I’m talking about two types of naturalism that derive from certain attitudes among scientists, born from different kinds of scientific work. There’s some overlap between engineering and mathematics, but these groups are also divided by different mindsets and cultures. So, then, the engineering-centered picture takes for granted the technologies that provide scientists with the data needed to formulate their hypotheses. In addition, the engineer appreciates the work that goes into scientific explanation, including the economic and political systems needed to separate Church from State in modern Europe, which allowed early modern scientists to work with less and less fear of persecution. Finally, the engineer’s sort of naturalism is pragmatic, in that the engineer is inspired by the power of natural causes to determine their effects and thus he takes science to be the means by which we control nature, in turn. Incidentally, engineering-centered scientists are overwhelmingly male.

In this world picture, then, nature is objectified, to be sure, but it’s also understood as a creative process. Just as the engineer builds things, so too natural forces form matter into systems that develop more complex levels of organization. Time is regarded as real in this world picture and the scientist’s task is to understand how natural mechanisms work within their cycles. This is not a teleological worldview, though, since no one mentally represents the stages of these processes—besides the scientist, of course, who has no part in setting most natural processes in motion. Moreover, there’s no real end within a natural cycle and thus no goal achieved by the work of natural forces and systems. Any end of a natural process is an artifact of a way of conceptualizing and thus simplifying the phenomenon, as opposed to being objective or real. We merely lack an interest in, or are unable to discover what happens after a certain point, which leads us to speak of beginnings or ends in nature. For example, we refer to a star’s birth or to a planet’s death, but the matter and energy in those cases merely change form.

Indeed, strictly speaking, there are no natural processes, in so far as a process is a systematic series of actions directed towards some end. To speak of the process of natural selection, for example, is to use a potentially misleading metaphor. Natural systems aren’t really engineers that plan ahead to achieve some goal, of course. Nevertheless, these systems do evolve and create other systems, and so the engineering-centered picture is of an undead, “decaying” world. The zombie comparison is yet another metaphor, but at least it doesn’t tempt us to assume the personal connotations of “natural process.”

And yet the fact that natural mechanisms accomplish work, that nature is zombielike in that it creates orders of complexity like a living engineer, while lacking any vitality including any power of forethought raises a curious question of cosmic eschatology. After all, wasn’t there an absolute beginning in the Big Bang and won’t there be some ultimate end, after all, such as a heat death of everything, depending on the universe’s geometry? There may be no real beginnings or ends within nature except those we posit to suit our interest in understanding parts of the whole, but the universe seems necessarily self-contained in so far as it’s scientifically understood. Objective reality has limits and definite forms, including a finite number of dimensions. If, then, the universe has a beginning and an end, can we speak of nature as having an objective purpose and of all of the changes within the universe as steps towards some inevitable endpoint?

To be sure, the process would be undead and without intrinsic value, given the atheism implicit in any sort of modern naturalism. But the question remains, in short, whether there’s such a thing as fate within this engineer’s vision of nature. Again, not if the concept of fate entails an agent to prescribe events, as it did in ancient Greek thought, but perhaps that myth-making has always been a way for social beings like us to feel comfortable with the world’s alien pseudo-agency. We intuit that as the seasons always return and even as the constellations resume their positions in the sky after passing through their orbits, so too all of nature must be endless and ideal, to match our archetype of paradise. That comforting image has been rendered childish and idle in light of modern techniques of objectification. Still, the objective world isn’t devoid of power or creativity. And where there are such propensities, there too are pseudo-processes and the spawning of an undead cosmos that marches to oblivion. All transitions within nature, then, seem like so many doomed protestations against the fate of any undead thing, which is to decay and collapse under the weight of its blasphemy.

Time is king in this picture of nature, being the beat to which all things march, and they march in lockstep to natural law. Causality, then, is the chain that drags all systems into the obliteration at the end of time. David Hume argued that causality is unreal, that we project that occult power onto nature, whereas we’re empirically justified in speaking only of the regularities we strictly observe. That is, all we see is one sort of event repeatedly following another sort, under certain conditions. We don’t observe the one sort forcing the other to happen, so there’s no such thing as causal connection, as far as we can tell just from our senses. Unluckily for the empiricist, we needn’t rely just on our senses. Were we to do so and to stop thinking about we perceive, there would be no need for philosophical skepticism since there would have been no ascent of human civilization to support the speculations that elite mammals are liable to toy with in their decadence. Indeed, were we to go on just what our senses show us, we’d have no reason to think that the lights in the night sky are actually stars that are much larger than our planet, nor any reason to think our planet is a sphere (unless we somehow manage to see all sides of the Earth at once from outer space). Moreover, there would be no such thing as rational justification, in the first place, so it wouldn’t matter what we believe, because neither do we observe any belief’s being better than another. Indeed, if we strip away our cognitive faculties, there would be no sense at all in our sensations, no conceptual simplifications for the sake of understanding, but just a chaotic blur of unprocessed sensory information.

Thus, as Kant explained (although not exactly in these terms), to understand what we perceive we employ our categories and metaphors and other mental programs. As I put it elsewhere, we humanize the phenomenon even as we objectify it. And so we posit causality as well as gods, disposing of the latter without having to do the same with the former, because there are many epistemic criteria available. But the point is that causality casts a Gnostic pallor if we think of the natural order as a series of evolutions that brings the universe that much further to an end that negates all prior events. In this world picture in which time is paramount, because what’s most real for the engineering-centered naturalist is creative work and power, it will be exactly as if there had been no mighty, sublime universe, when everything ends in some nearly unimaginable cataclysm. There will be no one then to tell the tale, no runner to pass the torch; the sun will rise no more and all will be lost. If there are causes and effects, or what the philosopher Nancy Cartwright calls nomological machines, and not just chance regularities, that ultimate destruction is our universe’s destiny. There is no escape and so this world picture is something like a nightmare, starring the monstrous, undead cosmos, with supporting roles for the tragic heroes trapped within who make the best of their imprisonment. To be sure, not all natural processes are deterministic or robotically mechanical: at the subatomic level, particles interact probabilistically rather than causally, and chaotic systems have fractal complexity, their patterns being irreducible to the work of the parts within them. But these are still alien, impersonal vehicles that will inevitably drive the universe to ruin.

Mathematical Mysticism

You might think that something like that engineering-centric vision of nature is the only naturalistic one, call it what I may. But in fact there’s an alternative that derives principally from mathematics—and specifically from geometry. Whereas the engineer objectifies by analyzing the world in terms of problems that call for mechanical solutions, and thus by looking at nature, too, as an undead creator of mechanical systems, the geometer objectifies in a more Platonic way. (Again, I’m personifying scientific skills here, not referring to the two professional classes, namely engineers and mathematicians.) The geometer posits nothing as messy as processes or transient material things, but eternal relationships between ideal structures. Mathematicians have virtually taken over postmodern physics and thus so has geometrization, which is this alternative form of objectification. Again, there’s the depersonalization of nature as well as the scientist’s temporary dehumanization as he subjects his thoughts not so much to the rigors of experiment, but to the ironclad order of pure logic. But now aesthetic ideals of elegance, beauty (symmetry), and simplicity come to the fore, rather than the pragmatic interest in the construction process, because mathematics abstracts from the messy material world in which actual work is done.

Whereas time and thus entropy rule the land of undead nature, time is unreal in the mathematician’s picture. This demotion of time was most drastic in Einstein’s geometrical unification of space and time in a four-dimensional block called spacetime. Time is treated as another spatial dimension, with all future and past moments existing simultaneously so that the feeling of passing through time is an illusion based on our limited perspectives. The physicist Theodor Kaluza rewrote Einstein’s equations to include a fifth dimension, which allowed him to unify gravity and electromagnetism, making the latter a form of hyperspatial gravity. Later physicists followed him so that now the leading view in physics is that there are really eleven dimensions, the four dimensions of spacetime plus other microscopic and thus hidden dimensions of hyperspace, and particles are explained as ripples and other patterns in multidimensional space.

All change becomes illusory in these Theories of Everything (TOE), since the differences between material objects are due to the warping of fixed higher dimensions of space. In Superforce, Paul Davies says that in Kaluza’s view, there are no forces, “only warped five-dimensional geometry, with particles meandering freely in a landscape of structured nothingness.” In a TOE such as string theory, particles too become locked in geometry like flies caught in amber, so the free play of particles is like a trick of light within the geometric whole, brought about by the warp and woof of hyperspace. Instead of causality, there’s geometric structure. Instead of temporal flow, there’s space—or rather spaces, which are so many varieties of “structured nothingness.” Things or objects, as such, are unreal since what’s fundamental is what we think of as their containers, the dimensions defined by geometric abstractions.

There are, then, two kinds of objectification in science. There’s the instrumentalism which breaks everything down into mechanisms that can be re-engineered precisely because they’ve all been naturally constructed in the first place. Then there’s the mathematician’s mysticism which doesn’t analyze things in terms of parts that are assembled into wholes by undead processes, but which unifies the apparent world with an invisible, mathematically ideal one. The geometer’s objectification surpasses the quasi-sociopathy of the engineering-minded scientist who sees the world (including people, ultimately) as consisting of so many instruments and machines, since the geometer downgrades the entire material universe. In the engineer’s picture, understanding is achieved by making, which is to say that we understand something only if we can disassemble and reassemble it. As Foucault put it, knowledge is power; that is, understanding is measured by our degree of control over the subject matter. Thus, engineering becomes paramount in science, as engineers join the undead cycles of creation and destruction in the wilderness. However, for those scientists who objectify not by instrumentalizing but by geometrizing, mathematical contemplation is the road to understanding reality, and instead of being adequately intuited in terms of undead or zombielike decay, the objective world of hyperspace is more or less deified as the Absolute, or as the so-called impersonal god of the philosophers.

To illustrate with reference to pop culture, you can see this division in TV’s The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon Cooper is a theoretical physicist whose job is to geometrize the world and he condescends to the applied scientist Leonard and especially to the engineer Howard, not just because the latter doesn’t have a Ph.D., but because they both get their hands dirty setting up experiments and making things. Howard’s engineering is made all the grittier by the fact that his prized invention is a waste disposal system, albeit one used in outer space by NASA. For the more practical scientists’ part, they ridicule Sheldon not just because of his mental disorders, but because he doesn’t live in what they consider the real world, which includes the domain of normal social interaction. The theoretical physicist is alienated from society, because his head is in the clouds of hyperspace, while the engineer in the show is the most carnal of the group and the applied scientist Leonard is the most normal, often suffering pangs of regret for his lingering nerdiness. The natural world of undead processes is symbolized by the sexual temptations provided by the female characters to which even Sheldon succumbs. Thus, while the show begins by celebrating something like geometrization, it’s gradually shifted to upholding the more pragmatic image of science. And yet Sheldon’s childishness has always allowed the broad-based show to downplay the religious aspect of geometrization. Sheldon reveres himself, not the higher reality invoked by his wizardly mathematics.

Enchanted Nature and a Glimmer of Postmodern Religiosity

In the case of engineering-centered instrumentalism, science-as-mystical-contemplation comes to an end and science is united with the businesses of creating and selling things. Again, applied science is preeminent if reality consists of mechanical systems flowing in a sea of fundamentally mindless but creative causal networks. “Work!” becomes the rallying cry, as in the new atheist’s credo, “Science wins because it works” or “Science works, bitches!” as Richard Dawkins put it. But if reality is hyperspatial, scientists end up as Platonists and Gnostics, and science is turned into something like theology. That is, scientists become pantheists whose mathematical incantations are all the works that ought to be performed, because bodily interactions are trivial in comparison to that saving grace of ours as lowly beings whose evolved sensibilities otherwise confine us to the four-dimensional cave. This is why even atheists like Einstein and Hawking can’t help but speak of God as being unwilling to play dice, of the laws of nature as divine and as providing us a window into God’s mind, and so forth: these theoretical scientists practice science-as-geometrization and so their objectification is virtually a spiritualizing of nature. Objectification can be a form of enchantment which practically (not metaphysically) reestablishes the division between nature and supernature, in terms of that between space (and time) and hyperspace.

Thus, the so-called war between science and religion is hardly what it seems. The science-centered atheists are the more spiritual combatants since they refuse to trivialize ultimate reality by personifying it as the narrow-minded masses do when the latter practice their exoteric bastardizations of the traditional religions. Ironically, the so-called theists are the deeper atheists, compared to the modern naturalists who have made a science out of mysticism and whose magic really works in the form of artificialization (applied science). Still, the religious aspect of geometrization muddies the waters in the culture war between science and religion, and so many naturalists are scientismists who stand against all spirituality and religion—even as physicists become so beholden to the mystical monks among them that they spent billions building the Large Hadron Collider to procure some evidence for the prevailing TOE which by many accounts is unfalsifiable and thus effectively theological.

Mathematics has replaced myths for modern atheistic religionists, aesthetic admiration the call for a personal relationship with God. Instead of telling stories about the divine order, using symbols drawn from everyday life which thus anthropomorphize that ultimate reality—which is how religion (the worshipping of something sacred) is practiced more as art than as science—geometrizing scientists chart the mystical structure of nothingness using artificial symbols drawn from math, which are so divorced from daily reality that most people haven’t the foggiest clue what physicists are talking about. But just as myths are meant to honour the sense that there’s a qualitatively higher order removed from the seemingly fallen world in which we so often suffer, geometrization provides a vision of the hyperspatial Absolute in which all things literally move and have their being. Instead of foolishly projecting our mammalian social instincts onto the alien Absolute, modern pantheists worship the divine order by contemplating its aesthetic aspect, that is, its topology. Instead of art criticism in the form of the pretentious postmodern journal for nihilistic snobs, we have the higher art criticism of the mathematical model of hyperspace. The elitism remains, but at least the theorists of everything revere the ultimate art object, the structured nothingness whose ripples are galaxies and whose twists are the fundamental forces of our universe, whereas postmodern fine art is perpetrated mainly by charlatans.

These two kinds of scientific objectification, the engineer’s instrumentalism and the geometer’s mysticism, seem largely at odds with each other. Certainly, time can’t be both real (fundamental) and unreal, for example. You might think that these approaches to science come into conflict only when we totalize them. If we think of science as providing us with models of phenomena, we can speak of models of spacetime and of hyperspace, and leave aside the question of their consistency since the models may be useful for different purposes. But then we’d be thinking of science as pragmatic, not as mystical. The conflict, then, is between views of science, not just between views of nature. The question is whether empirical knowledge should be useful, above all else, or whether it should lead to reverence, compelling us to acknowledge our insignificance in relation to the Absolute. Methodological naturalism begs the question in favour of the engineer’s predilection, as does scientism since science-centered hostility to all religion is just a tactic in a culture war: scientismists espouse an oversimplified portrayal of science and rationality to achieve their social goals. By contrast, the mystical scientist loses himself in contemplation, not in Machiavellian power struggles. The question, then, is whether to identify with the monstrous evolutions of the apparent world or to commune with a hidden, immaterial reality through the tenuous link of abstract reasoning. Engineering, consumerism, and dominance hierarchies or mathematical invocation, social alienation, and cosmicist awe? Business or pantheistic worship? Needless to say, science itself won’t answer these questions for us.


  1. Looks like I can't science my way out of this one!

    Fascinating article though. Science as contemporary theology/mysticism is an interesting idea.

    Your blog reaffirms my nihilism but it makes me feel good about it somehow. 10/10, would suicide to.

    1. Thanks for reading! I'm not quite a nihilist myself, but my worldview certainly has its dark side. I'm not sure what you were saying about suicide, but I discuss that issue here, in case you're interested:

    2. I was just being silly with the suicide comment.
      I know you're not a nihilist; I've been reading you're blog for a while now. However, I find it difficult to derive hope or meaning from your philosophy. I can't quite come to believe in your suggestions of transcendence. Just sounds like more complex horror. I don't know, maybe I'm too pessimistic.

    3. Well, my philosophy is a work in progress. I'd say it's not so much about hope or meaning, though, but moments of being transfixed by the sublime. Transcendence is everywhere in nature where you find evolution and complexification. And each higher level can be experienced as sublime (mind-blowing) from the lower or former perspective.

    4. But what if the transcendent is transcendentally horrible? Increasing complexification/emergence does not make me feel better about this world I live in, considering I don't believe in teleology. All I'm left with is the question, "What the fuck am I doing here?"

    5. I think we have to figure that out for ourselves. The philosophy/religion I'm working out on this blog is meant to confront the worst-case scenario (an interpretation of philosophical naturalism) and to make the best of it. So in an upcoming article, I make a similar point to your question about horrible transcendence. The problem isn't nihilism, I say, but an aesthetic vision of nature's ugliness.