Monday, 6 January 2014

A Sherlock-Spinoza universe

From Wikipedia

Well - now Christmas is over and we've finished the booze I think it’s about time we invented a new universe. I’m afraid it will vary in only a very tiny detail from the old version we are bumbling along with at the moment, but it's not the best time of year for new universes.

I’ve called it the Sherlock-Spinoza universe after two great logical thinkers Sherlock Holmes and Benedict Spinoza, only one of whom is fictional. The only newish feature of the Sherlock-Spinoza universe lies in the how we deal with matters of fact.

Philosopher Benedict Spinoza died in 1677, ten years before Isaac Newton published his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and our scientific view of the natural world began to acquire much of its current cultural shape, legitimacy and weakness.

Spinoza had a much rougher time of it than Newton. He was widely reviled as an atheist, which he strenuously denied, but nevertheless his books were banned and had to be printed and circulated clandestinely. However he soon became a forgotten name in the history of ideas and so until the nineteenth century.

I often wonder how things would have turned out if Spinoza’s ideas had formed a cultural basis for Newton’s science. If our view of the universe had been shaped by Spinoza’s thinking rather than the vaguely scientific but-only-when-it-suits culture we inherited.

We neither feel nor perceive any individual things save bodies and modes of thinking.
Benedict Spinoza

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?
Sherlock Holmes

In a Sherlock-Spinoza universe we have eliminated impossible forms of awareness to be left with only two - physical reality and modes of thinking. A physical and logical duality. Scientific and many other issues are resolved by physical observation intimately coupled with a logical use of language.

It is worth noting that both Sherlock and Spinoza’s logical take on things were rooted in natural language rather than symbolic logic. So in a Sherlock-Spinoza universe, the following argument would be decisive.

  • Unrestrained increases in atmospheric CO2 will cause catastrophic global warming.
  • Unrestrained increases in atmospheric CO2 have caused no warming for 16 years.
  • Therefore the first statement is false.

However, in our universe many people with pro-AGW allegiances would attack the argument, in my view because our vaguely scientific culture is – well vague. However, the point of interest is not sterile climate debates, but our cultural use and abuse of language.

The key point is surely this. In a Sherlock-Spinoza universe, the argument above would be readily accessible to almost anyone who speaks the language, has a very basic understanding of logical structures and access to some basic climate data.

In other words, the argument is easily taught – expert opinion is not needed. Almost anyone in a Sherlock-Spinoza universe could use the argument with no appeal to authority other than the implicit authority of a logical philosophy.

Not only that, but in a Sherlock-Spinoza universe, physical reality, grammar and other linguistic structures would all be key aspects of our world view, our science, economics and politics.

English teachers would teach the intellectual framework for all matters of fact - cogently expressed and not easily assailed by charlatans. 

Fortunately for charlatans, all this has been avoided in our universe. The reason of course, is elementary my dear reader.


Sackerson said...

Trouble is, we may not be in possession of all the facts, or of the facts accurately; nor cognizant of all the important ways in which they are interrelated. As Goedel showed, a complete mathematical model of the universe is not possible even theoretically, and even if it were, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle means that an accurate factual description of it at any given instant is also impossible.

So we work on incomplete information and with some issues, better safe than sorry, perhaps. E.g. the putative additional stored heat in the Earth's energy system may be building up in strata of the oceans, with possible major effects later when some tipping point has been passed.

Nigel Sedgwick said...

Sackerson makes a goodish point: we are too ignorant of the truths of climate and planet energy balance to know.

Sadly, he then spoils that good position by arguing that this ignorance favours the position of the CAWG enthusiasts.

There is some information from me here at Samizdata on storage of heat in the oceans. If the link direct to my comment fails, search for "August 2, 2012 at 1:43 pm".

As far as I can see, the default position on "don't know" the truth, when someone wants your money to save the world, is a big NO. This is on the basis that snake oil is known to be more common than Armageddon.

Best regards

Sackerson said...

Hi Nigel

I thought it's a reasonable principle that in situations of uncertainty and potential peril it is better to be cautious.

Will have a look at your link.

Best wishes

Nigel Sedgwick said...

Hi Sackerson

I agree that the precautionary principle can be (used to be) a good thing.

However, the principle has been much abused, for political ends - as are many good things.

Here is a good article on it that I found years ago:

Best regards

Demetrius said...

I am certain only that I am uncertain. Bloggo ergo sum or try Taylor's Holy Living.

James Higham said...

In a Sherlock-Spinoza universe we have eliminated impossible forms of awareness to be left with only two - physical reality and modes of thinking. A physical and logical duality. Scientific and many other issues are resolved by physical observation intimately coupled with a logical use of language.

Oh my goodness - where does one even start on this? Only two forms of awareness? It would require a treatise.

A K Haart said...

Sackers and Nigel - I take your points, but if one of our problems concerns uncertainty, then maybe that is at least in part a problem with imprecise language, particularly imprecise definitions.

The precautionary principle is in my view a rhetorical device only, a means to take advantage of imprecise language within some framework of prior allegiance.

Demetrius - bloggo ergo sum is a good motto - one of the first things I noticed on your blog!

James - would your treatise be a result of your modes of thinking?