The Shock of Your Own Inadequacy, Research Time, 06/11/2017

No, this post isn’t about the first time you experienced erectile dysfunction and get your minds out of the gutter.

Really, I’m taking a second pass at the idea I was talking about earlier this weekend. That idea of alienation coming up in The Human Condition. It’s useful and intriguing, and I want to make sure I have a good handle on how to express it. I think I have a better grasp on the how right now.

When I was a young boy, I read Steven Hawking's A Brief History of
. There, I read that the ultimate goal of science was to develop
a theory of everything, a mathematical system that could explain
and predict every phenomenon in the universe in simple formulae.
Hawking should be ashamed of writing such propaganda.
Mathematics are, in some context, important to all sciences. Calculus, geometry, statistics, plain old arithmetic – whatever. If you want to give a quick and dirty one-sentence* definition of science, call it ‘Systematic knowledge emerging from understanding mathematical descriptions of things, systems, and processes.’

* Inevitably inadequate, but making an accurate-enough gesture for us to say that, yeah, it’s true I suppose.

Put that in your introductory-level philosophy of science textbook and smoke it.

Okay, that was the last joke. So Hannah Arendt tries to explain how a profound alienation from nature, the world, and our experience can arise from how central mathematics is to our knowledge.

The mathematical tools of the different sciences give us a better ability to understand natural processes – atomic energy fields, cellular and organic processes, ecological development, cosmological events – than we can get from our ordinary observation of the world.

Go to the typical grade school example – which I don’t think ever gets unpacked the way it really deserves – of geocentric vs heliocentric models of the solar system. We look up in the sky and we see the sun and other heavenly bodies circling us.

But describing their actual motion in our sky takes some convoluted math. So Copernicus, Erasmus, and others developed a heliocentric model with simpler math. It was always an as-if hypothesis just to ease up on the headaches astronomers suffered.

If I could focus on one of the many philosophical and metaphysical
screwups of Christian thought, it's that the common interpretation of
Noah's myth in this tradition is that creation exists for us as we are.
The meaning of the rainbow is that everything is illuminated already.
I much prefer the Jewish tradition, which is much more honest about
how we still have to work for our knowledge.
Mathematics is a technological creation – it’s a human tool, a complex assemblage of symbols and rules. So any knowledge that we produce with mathematical tools isn’t a direct encounter with the world – mathematics mediates our knowledge of the world.

That was fine when we were just coming up with imaginary models to simplify our models of a more complex world – the migraine-inducing calculations of planetary paths in the geocentric model. But then it turned out that the mediated abstract models of visceral experience were true, and our ordinary experience of the world distorted how nature really was.

Arendt talks about Galileo and the astronomical tradition that followed him, but Robert Boyle and the Royal Society’s development of the experimental laboratory was equally important. Mathematics was the symbolism, and the laboratory was the institution and site, of mediated knowledge.

Mediated knowledge was much more effective, more powerful, than knowledge through direct experience of the world. Necessary conditions of humanity’s industrial revolution included that mediated knowledge.

Our own tools, techniques, and technology were the medium of that knowledge. This was a profound cultural shock to the Europeans who developed the modern epoch of mathematics and the institution of the laboratory. My debt here is to my SERRC colleague Steve Fuller’s philosophical history of knowledge.

The power of mediated knowledge over direct experience of the world
was such a shock to Medieval Christian European society that its
success felt like falling back into the Cave. A God whose nature
requires complex mathematics and wrangling results out of a
laboratory to understand isn't nearly as kind and close to us as
Medieval Christian thinking held. All the philosophical attempts
to overcome mediation in knowledge – I think of Hegel's Absolute
and popular evangelical literalist disdain for science – you can
understand as desperate refusals to accept a distant God.
Before this cultural realization of the power of mediated knowledge, Europeans had a view of the world in which every moment of ordinary wandering through the world brought you closer to God.

The medieval Christian conception of worldly knowledge was that our world was creation. Creation was God’s expression, and humanity was the element of creation who God made creation for.

Creation’s purpose was for humans to understand it and live harmoniously in nature. So the popular conception of nature in European Christian culture was as an open book. Creation was something through which we understood God and our relationship to Him. We’re built to understand creation intuitively because creation was made for us.

The success of mediated knowledge demonstrates that creation wasn’t made for us. The most accurate knowledge of the world emerges from using these complicated tools, technology that requires years of training and education to use properly. The world is much more opaque than an entire sub-continent’s culture of our ancestors understood.

People in Medieval Christian European culture thought of themselves as Fallen, that they had to work to understand God and creation again. The success of technology – mathematical symbols and the laboratory – in understanding the world demonstrates to a Medieval European Christian that we’re Fallen much farther than we thought.

We may as well have Fallen into hell.

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