Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The tool-maker

Men at first made use of the instruments supplied by nature to accomplish very easy pieces of workmanship, laboriously and imperfectly, and then, when these were finished, wrought other things more difficult with less labour and greater perfection; and so gradually mounted from the simplest operations to the making of tools, and from the making of tools to the making of more complex tools, and fresh feats of workmanship, till they arrived at making, complicated mechanisms which they now possess.

 So, in like manner, the intellect, by its native strength, makes for itself intellectual instruments, whereby it acquires strength for performing other intellectual operations, and from these operations again fresh instruments, or the power of pushing its investigations further, and thus gradually proceeds till it reaches the summit of wisdom.

Benedict Spinoza – On the Correction of the Understanding (1662)

To my mind, Spinoza’s analogy is a powerful one. In fact I’d go further and suggest that all we really do with our supposed intelligence is hone our tool-making skills. Particularly if we allow Spinoza’s point about abstract tools – the intellectual instruments he refers to.

I suppose language is the primary intellectual tool, but how do we know we are making the best use of it? Maybe it’s the tool-like qualities of our ideas – our intellectual instruments. In that case, intellectual instruments could be rather like directions, advice, rules or instruction manuals. Or indeed a personal philosophy.

Science includes tool-making of both types – physical and intellectual. However, unless a scientific investigation ends up with a new physical tool it isn’t always easy to see why we should classify it as science. 

A tool in this sense might be as complex as a biochemical process for making a new drug, but it would still be a physical tool. Scientific intellectual instruments might be atomic theory or the periodic table whose tool-like qualities seem pretty clear.

So I think it is legitimate to ask any scientist – what have you built, what does it do, can I buy one, how do I use it? Of course the answer may be I haven’t made anything yet – give it time. Fair enough, but at some point a useful tool, physical or intellectual, has to make an appearance. Otherwise a cynic might suspect some scientists of being little more than remunerated gossips.

What tools have psychology, sociology and economics come up with? Intellectual instruments such as informed practical advice? Advice with some relevance to the real world even if that relevance is only seen in human behaviour?

These activities do seem to straddle the divide between philosophy and science, generating intellectual instruments rather than physical tools. Yes, there are psychoactive drugs, but I think the distinction is valid.

Not remunerated gossip? Not necessarily, but they have to work hard to create genuinely useful intellectual instruments and as far as I can see often don’t.

To take another example, multiverse theories and string theories appear to have produced no new physical tools or new uses for existing tools – nothing to collect new data from observable physical reality. Maybe they are intellectual instruments. Maybe, but their apparent lack of tool-like qualities is interesting.

Climate science has developed computer models which could have been scientific tools apart from the fact that they don’t work. So where does that leave them as physical tools? Maybe they need more development time. 

Would you buy a climate model?

Is some science little more than remunerated gossip? Well there is certainly a lot of it about and the key point about remunerated gossip is – it’s remunerated.


Sackerson said...

We don't know where pure research will lead. Look at how lasers are now used; and the strange mathematics that underlies the cellphone network.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - yes, development time and potential uses for pure research are problematic.

I think some pure research such as astronomical research can clearly be seen as knowledge tools.

It's also possible that gossip is needed to highlight whatever isn't gossip.