Knowing Knowledge IX: Knowing Necessary Possibilities, Dialogues, 30/04/2015

This is the first part of the last instalment of my exchange with University of Warwick’s Steve Fuller about his latest book Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History. I went on for a bit longer than I usually do, so we’ve split my initial critique in two halves. Steve responds to the first half of what I wrote him last week here. He responds to the second half of what I wrote him last week, in a day or so. As usual, I write cheeky responses in my photo captions.

You know, I've never actually used a picture of myself
to begin these posts, as I've used a photo of Steve.
Dear Steve;

Although I loved our explicitly political discussion of the last couple of dialogues, I want to dive into the final instalment of our exchange with some headier philosophy. I particularly want to discuss the power of counter-factual reasoning. Even though you consider this a foundational method for a progressive philosophy of science, I think it eclipses even your own vision. Counter-factual knowledge, I'd go so far as to say, makes a lot of your own vision obsolete.

The conclusion of Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History returns to the vision on which your early chapters focussed, the unity of science in humanity's conception of ourselves in the image of God. Your advocacy of this idea remains a point on which you and I will, I think, always disagree. But once I reached the end of your book, I had many more reasons for my disagreement.

The first such reason I want to discuss is the pragmatics of consilience. Scientific research, discoveries, institutions, and knowledge range over, as you describe in Chapter 6, all things for all people. Science is about the investigation of the world, of the systems, relationships, and bodies that constitute the world all together. Its mode of knowing the world is through investigating what must happen and what can change. 

Counter-factual knowledge, in other words. This model of knowledge and reasoning achieves, on our own power alone, the “middle knowledge” that you say in your conclusion is the foundation of modern science as it arose in the West, in the Medieval cultural milieu. 

The highest level of necessity in human reasoning is the strict necessity of syllogistic reasoning. A is B; B is C; therefore A is also C. There is another mode of knowledge that is far more contingent, counting as knowledge, but without any necessity at all. When I first met you in real life at the University of Toronto, I made note of many facts: your height, that (unlike many of the photos I had previously seen) you were now clean-shaven, and the tone of your speaking voice. 

The essence of the divine is also that all existence is
divine, and there's no hierarchy of being separating
me from this bear. None of us are superior or
inferior. We just do different things.
Between logical necessity and contingent fact is what you call Middle Knowledge, the knowledge of physical necessity, the knowledge of the laws of nature. Emerging from the Medieval milieu, Christian self-conceptions were required to ground our claim to genuine knowledge of physical necessity. 

If humanity were entirely profane, then we would never be able to grasp any necessity in the universe at all. We’d be mere animals, drifting and distracted from moment to moment and event to event. Yet we aren’t so entirely divine as to have perfect knowledge of all the facts, changes, and relationships that constitute the universe. This would be the knowledge of the divine plan of being, where every fact is understood in its necessity. 

I think of this along Spinozist lines, partially to needle you a little, given your previous comments to me that you could never be a Spinozist. But it also makes sense to me that the existence of the divine is necessity. It’s the space where I see some of our deeply held conceptions of divinity converging, one of the few spaces where they really do. As we understand the relations among all the bodies and processes of the universe, we become more divine ourselves.

But here’s where you and I differ. I don’t see why we need to be partially divine already to develop knowledge of physical necessities. Or rather, humanity’s status as the divine animal isn’t necessary to ground our capacity to know physical necessities. The reasoning structure of counter-factual knowledge, which you describe in delightful detail in Chapter 6, is a guide to such development. And we don’t need any underlying divine nature (at least no more divine than the rest of material existence) to have such a power. We figured it out ourselves.

A question related to the concept of humanity’s nature as the image of God still nags at me, and I think it always will. Why must the fact that the universe is intelligible imply that there is an intelligent designer? There is nothing about the existence of order which implies that such order is the product of design. Existence alone constitutes order through the dynamic relations of processes. Order figures itself out through time.

This is what I ultimately find so frustrating about your book and your larger philosophical projects as a public intellectual right now. I simply don’t understand why a simple notion like the logic of counter-factual knowledge can’t be a unifying principle for science, and why you think only the strong, deep concept of humanity being made in the image of God can do the job.

Groundbreaking, both in theoretical
physics and the ethical progress of
humanity, India's first great physicist
of the modern era, Satyendra Nath Bose.
It isn’t just my own non-Christian sensibility that remains skeptical of whether this concept can hack it, but it would likely meet resistance from the non-Christian sensibilities of many practicing scientists around the world. I’m not just referring to the atheist or agnostic scientists who were still raised in a broadly Christian culture. I’m referring to scientists in Africa, Asia, and the Arab World who were raised in a Muslim religious tradition, or the large number of scientists throughout the West who come from long-standing Orthodox Jewish communities. The same goes for scientists whose cultural theologies are Hindu, Buddhist, or the a-religious cultural philosophies of China.

All these people throughout the world would be hesitant to throw in on a unifying concept for science that is rooted so firmly in a Western, European, and Christian theologico-cultural milieu and tradition. What comes naturally to you with your Jesuit education would be culturally alien to someone with an upbringing in Hindu or Confucian institutions. 

What may have been the unifying principle of science at its origin is now a concept that will only sow division. In the words of a wise man, who I think was either Thomas Wolfe or B. A. Baracus, you can’t go home again.
• • •
Dear Adam,

I’m glad that you picked up on the importance I place on what the later Scholastics called ‘middle knowledge’, namely, our capacity to reason to counterfactual states of the world based on our empirical knowledge. In this way, we might be able to bootstrap our way up to God’s universal knowledge. 

Put in more modest and secular terms, we might come to know the laws of nature without having to experience every moment that is subsumed under those laws. Thus, experiments allow us to vary the conditions of the world – in our minds, in the lab and, increasingly, on the computer – so that we can simulate the requisite universality. Of course, experimental outcomes are notoriously fallible, and I want to say something about the significance of our fallibility later. But first I want to address the need for an intelligent designer who sets the gold standard against which to judge our efforts in this direction.

Steve Fuller, my formidable opponent.
The first point to observe is that unless you believe that there is a being who could know all things in all space and time, it doesn’t even make sense to attempt to get at ‘laws of nature’ in the modern scientific sense – unless, of course, you were writing fiction. But the quest for laws of nature requires more than simply belief in such a being. It also requires that we are already sufficiently like that being that it is reasonable to think that the quest might just succeed. This link between us and the intelligent designer is especially important because the search for laws of nature, while building on ordinary empirical knowledge, quickly takes us away from it. 

This is why I just suggested that the default human attitude to this project is to regard it as a genre of fiction. But experiments are not big video games or theatrical sets. They are models of physical reality. Without the theological scaffolding, such a conclusion would seem sheer lunacy – and this is how, I imagine, Aristotle (but not Plato) would have understood today’s science.

I believe that people fail to see this point because they haven’t considered what other rational grounds they might have to search for laws of nature prior to knowing any of the consequences that have made the project so empirically worthwhile over, say, the last four hundred years.* 

* ‘Curiosity,’ the snake oil of naturalized epistemologies, doesn’t explain the intergenerational persistence of science in the face of its own long-standing unsolved problems and collateral damage to the world. 

The answer would probably be none. And that was precisely the state of mind in which the original Scientific Revolutionaries found themselves. For them, the metaphysics of Christianity (especially the imago dei doctrine) led them to conclude that only specific Christian institutions – especially the Church – held them back from realizing something that their religion already told them was in principle within their reach, namely, absolution of Original Sin and reunion with God. 

But this conclusion was ultimately a leap of faith on their part – and perhaps it is no accident that Pascal’s Wager as an argument for the existence of God emerges at this time. Albert Hirschmann tells a similar story in The Passions and the Interests about the early acceptance of capitalism as an economic ideology before it had proven itself as a reliable wealth producing engine.

You ask why Christian theology needs to be dragged into the logic of counterfactuals, and the answer is that there is no obvious ‘logic of counterfactuals’ independent of specific metaphysical assumptions. You’re wrong to think that Christians are alone in possessing the relevant basic metaphysics, though Christians have done the most to develop it. 

The image of David Lewis, metaphysician of necessity.
As Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam also grant pride of place to humanity in divine creation based on the Garden of Eden episode and God’s uniquely direct address to humans. True, Christians have honed this point into a strong imago dei doctrine, which Judaism and Islam regard as controversial if not outright heretical, especially when it hints at the apotheosis of humanity, the point at which Christianity potentially slides into transhumanism.

This is light-years away from the metaphysical starting point of the great non-Abrahamic religions, which do not grant any cosmological privilege to the human condition whatsoever. Of course, there have been great scientists from India and China who have stuck to their native beliefs and not been converted to something more Abrahamic. 

However, I would argue that these scientists got the relevant metaphysics through their ‘Western’ scientific training, which in turn has modified how their non-Western religiosity functions in their overall world-view. Sometimes anthropologists speak of this phenomenon in terms of ‘compartmentalization’ but it may be more subtle.

A thoroughly secular debate over the exact metaphysics that underwrites counterfactuals stole much of the limelight in analytic philosophy in the 1970s, courtesy of Saul Kripke and David Lewis, two sharp-shooting Princeton logicians who overshadowed colleague Richard Rorty as he was putting the finishing touches on Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. This debate left a strong impression on me, especially as it was presented in one of Jon Elster’s early books, the brilliant Logic and Society. In terms of how we’ve been discussing matters, the sense of ‘necessity’ that concerned Lewis was ‘logical,’ whereas Kripke’s was ‘physical.’

Basically Lewis saw counterfactuals as self-consistent non-actualized states of the world, full stop. He wasn’t particularly concerned with how to get to such states of the world from the actual one. In fact, whenever Lewis discussed the ‘closeness’ of some possible world to the actual one, he would be simply referring to the number of properties that they shared. 

His theory was not attuned to what economists call ‘the theory of the second best,’ whereby the second best policy may be radically different from the first best because what makes the first policy the best is how all its parts hang together. And if you’re missing some of the parts (or they’re not in the right proportion), then something completely different is better. This point, alien to Lewis’ purely logical analysis of counterfactuals, explains why the middle in politics is so often squeezed by the extremes.

The image of Saul Kripke, the 20th century's other
great metaphysician of necessity.
Kripke was more interesting. His theory of possible worlds fits Bismarck’s famous definition of politics as ‘the art of the possible’. Kripke insisted that unrealized possible worlds had to be based in the actual world. This means that an explanatory narrative of some sort needs to be spun. In particular, we might recount how a possibility had been prevented but perhaps could be reactivated in the future. 

All of this would involve looking at the resources available at various times for making things other than as they turned out to be. On that basis one could say how ‘far’ or ‘near,’ say, a desirable world was from the actual world at a given point in history – and this distance may vary, not necessarily always getting closer or farther away. We may well reach a point in the future where we can effectively recover a lost opportunity in the past.

To be sure, Kripke didn’t concern himself with any of the above details. He was simply interested in defining the sense in which it is reasonable to talk about ‘possible worlds’ as something other than pure fiction. And for him the bottom line was that a possible world is a possible version of the actual world, and hence a ‘counterfactual’ bears a stronger relationship to the ‘factual’ than the word ‘fictional’ normally implies. 

But for me Kripke made only the first moves. Navigating between possible worlds has been central to my own thinking over the past quarter-century or more, and it is developed in some detail in Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History.

However, to take this line of thought seriously is to commit to the idea that it makes sense to imagine an intellect who can scope out all the various contingencies, based on trying to realize some ideal plan within the budgetary constraints that matter imposes, i.e. variable but limited resources. In other words, the intellect is an optimizer, who prioritizes goals, identifies appropriate trade-offs and adjusts to vicissitudes. God would have all these possibilities programmed into his intelligent design algorithm, but we humans normally experience it as history, in which case the point of philosophy and science is to discover the algorithm and, in the process, realize our own divinity.

Even a dastardly old autocrat like
Otto von Bismarck could say
something reasonable sometimes.
I still prefer the more recent one.
This is a very brutally theological way of justifying our relationship with God – even by 17th century standards! But I think in secular form, it is also what Bismarck had in the back of his mind when he declared politics to be ‘the art of the possible’. He got it from Hegel, and Hegel reached back through Leibniz to Plato’s original conception of the philosopher-king, a member of a class of handpicked individuals who are trained to think like gods in case the day comes when they must function in that capacity.

To foreshadow my response to your final salvo on what you regard as my ‘political naïveté,’** consider two senses in which politicians may be said to ‘respond to events’. One reading of this phrase makes it appear that politicians simply adapt to circumstances, one after the other, without any sense of principle whatsoever. When we say that politicians are just in the business of staying in office, that’s what we mean. They just do what it takes to get the right number of votes. 

** Editor’s note. That critique is coming in the second half of the finale.

However, an alternative reading suggests that, when responding to events, politicians have already anticipated the possibility of those events and hence are already prepared to do the appropriate thing to keep the forward momentum going on the ideals which they ultimately wish to promote. And this may involve what, on the surface, looks like a change in course of action.

Now, politicians may do all this more or less successfully because, in the end, they’re just politicians and not gods. But this is the aspiration. It also gets us back to a point I raised earlier, namely, that the Machiavellian maxim ‘the end justifies the means’, often used to damn politicians’ lack of principle, is in fact the modus operandi of how political principle is implemented in the world. In this respect, we might wish to give politicians a bit more credit for intelligence when they say that their plans are working even though it looks like they’ve made a U-turn at a crucial juncture.

One person who I think understood all this very well was the great US theorist of journalistic ‘objectivity,’ Walter Lippmann. He saw the journalist as someone whose presentation of the news should reassure the public, in order to allow politicians the private space to race through various hypothetical scenarios as they decide what to do next: a calm exterior masking a dynamic interior. 

This was the process that at the height of the Cold War Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove immortalized in satire and Erving Goffman generalized into a sociology of the ‘front’ and ‘back’ regions of everyday life. In public relations, it’s called ‘impression management’ and when done properly it is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

This is not a man who you trust when he's calm. It
means he isn't afraid.
Lippmann’s divided self for political conduct may be seen as the mirror image of God’s dual self-presentation through nature: Instead of a calm exterior, nature inspires authority through its surface volatility as something ‘beyond our control’. However, beneath that volatility is a set of laws which science is in the business of discovering – perhaps in a less frantic and more rigorous way, yet nevertheless along the same experimental lines as the juggling of contingencies that transpire behind the political scenes so jealously guarded by Lippmann.

Put it this way. Both the politician’s appearance of calm and nature’s appearance of volatility are deceptions of a sort. The politician is really less placid than he appears, while nature is really less unruly than it seems. The frantic activity behind the appearances in the first case is in search of the secret to the underlying order in the second case. 

It may be that the various controversies surrounding ‘climate change’ are in the process of unravelling this delicate balance of knowledge and ignorance that has enabled something like Goffman’s front/back stage distinction to manage our understanding of both politics and nature in the modern era.

However, I don’t wish to dwell on this point here, but turn instead to something that drives the prominence of counterfactual thinking in my work. It’s what I take to be Hegel’s great counter-intuitive point about history. To have a rational account of history, you need to assume the arbitrariness of the decision points after which someone has won or lost – and as a result history goes in a one direction rather than another. Your rationality lies in how you cope with the arbitrariness, either as winner or loser. 

After all, the winners aren’t guaranteed indefinite success simply by repeating their winning actions, and the losers might have eventually won, given a different moment of decision, different resources, different evidence, different institutional arrangements, etc. Indeed, descendants of the losers might well overturn the winners in the future.  But it all depends on how these parties learn from their world-historic success or failure.

I can't help but think that we're only made in the image
of God because we looked in the mirror when we saw
the image. Count the fingers, Ludwig.
And Popper would agree with all this too. After all, Popper never said that losers had to roll over and play dead! Rather, they had to re-organize themselves so as to overcome the original criticism and do things of value that their opponents cannot. This is not as hard as it might first sound, if you consider the arbitrariness of the original moment of decision.

Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding that people have about Hegel – and here I’m thinking of Thomas Carlyle’s ‘pop Hegelian’ view of the ‘hero’ in history – is that there is some luminous relationship between a world-historic agent and the ends of history itself.  To be sure, the young Hegel regarded Napoleon as ‘the man of the hour’. But from the standpoint of world-history, Napoleon was simply a signal, a marker, a way station, not necessarily an exemplar of things to come. 

This point is especially controversial in a Christian context, where Christians have tended to think that Jesus wanted his followers to live as he did, with his overriding sense of social justice on the basis of which he placed his own life at risk, which eventuated in his Crucifixion. Thus, church history and dogmatic theology largely consist of stylisations – and, dare I say, dilutions – of the life of Jesus, as recounted in the Gospels, designed for easy mass consumption.

Given this rather flat-footed but institutionally effective strategy for ‘following in Jesus’ footsteps,’ it is easy to see why Hegel’s theological followers – the ‘Young Hegelians’ of Marx and Engels’ German Ideology fame – were considered so politically subversive in the 1830s and 1840s, when they proposed ‘naturalistic,’ ‘symbolic,’ and otherwise ‘demystified’ readings of the life of the Jesus.

However, my point is somewhat different from theirs. I am not so worried about what it would mean for the legitimacy of Christianity if the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life turn out to be substantially false, thereby undermining the epistemic foundation of, say, the Petrine papacy. Rather, I am more concerned with the meta-level question of what exactly about Jesus’ life (even granting our accurate knowledge of it) might be worth carrying forward as ‘exemplary.’ 

You don't have to be Christian to learn from the life of
Jesus. I've learned from it, for example.
This was a question that the Franciscan order has struggled with throughout its history. As a result, it has often found itself on the heretical side of things. After all, everyone’s life is a product of its time, and as time goes on it becomes intuitively harder to draw clear lessons from what Jesus did in his day to what we should do in ours. Call it the ‘problem of existential induction.’

Finally, let me close this round on something you and I may agree on: Academic training normally blinds one to the problem of existential induction, as it effectively gives one a vested interest in the future imitating the past. This leads academics to overestimate their own powers of judgement, which encourages them to dismiss empirical anomalies and other disruptions to the status quo as simply ignorable local disturbances, perhaps to be blamed on idiosyncratic personalities.

Here academics confuse being well-informed (i.e. knowing the trends and having the right views) with understanding the full potential of the fields that they're in. To understand the full potential, one needs to think more 'counterfactually' about how earlier initiatives managed to fail. Normal academics presume that it was because they were shown to be conclusively false. 

But they may have failed simply because the proponents did not try to mount a 2.0 in light of the first wave of criticism. And by 2.0, I don't just mean ad hoc hypotheses, but a reasonably substantial reconfiguration that enables the supposedly defeated theory to say something new that the opponents cannot. This is why I believe that the only way to rationally mount a future-oriented programme is by learning from the past.

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