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The Curious Aborigine

 

 

 

The Curious Aborigine

 

   

    Imagine a world in which captain Cook misses the Australian continent. A world in which the Aborigine, isolated for over forty thousand years from the evolving modern world, believes in spirits, in rain-gods. Take those aborigines as a sample of the original man, unaware of science. And then drop a brand-new jet fighter in their midst.
But it comes without a manual.
If human curiosity remains constant, they would try to figure out what it is theyve encountered. They would poke it, probe it, make strange noises at it, until at some point, one might press something that will make the hood pop open. Given time and persistency, they may come to learn how touching the battery makes you jump back and shiver, or how making two wires touch makes a roaring sound and vibration occurs.
You may say they have just discovered electricity. And over enough time, the next generations might come to take electricity for granted, though they still dont know what it is; even if they know how it works, how it reacts to intervention, and even how to generate it into existence. Years later they would know its entire physical structure, the reactions between its component. But ask what electricity is, and Ramsey could tell you that all you could receive would be an account of what it does, how it reacts. Not what it is in the metaphysical inflationary sense.
The curious Aborigines are humanity. The jet fighter is the world. And the way they go about figuring it out is the reverse-learning process we call science.


    Here I must clarify that the jet metaphor is not intended to suggest a maker. Since nature itself offers no-less complex riddles to solve, it is strictly a visual tool to portray our shooting-in-the-dark procedure of knowledge-formation. By reverse-learning I am referring to the metaphysical issue of tapping into truth out there which I believe is not out there for us to find; but rather in us to define and find patterns we deem useful, for our own subjective intents and purposes. It is a process of mixing X with Y and discovering Z happens. But as for why we can only point back at results, echoing the "thats just the way it is" metaphysical limitations of our knowledge.
It portrays the scientific process as what it is: our drive to break the unknown into tangible, subjectively-useful, guidelines.
When we started poking at life, complex definitions along the alternative world in which all else is the same lines were not necessary. An early scientist assumed the world remains the same besides the intervention they were performing. Explanation was taken at face value, and it did the job. When doctors came to see blood letting killed more than it healed, it was taken to explain its futility.
The purpose of this paper is to disprove the metaphysical inflationary intuition. My argument is that in our subjective existence, a summarizing of the world in ways that are relevant to our own intents and purposes, is all weve got. And all we need.
For that I will take a step back from the over-entrenched battleground of current philosophy of science, and re-examine the connection between the world and us humans, and between the world and our knowledge, or truth.


    It is aimed at showing how the world is constant (meanwhile), we are subjective, and truth is relative to the endeavor it supports. If it does so, it would deem our relative-to-us subjective truth befitting the scientific process, since from scratch we set it up with ourselves as the only relevant audience.
Yet it would strongly suggest our knowledge is strictly limited to the practice of interventions in nature and the documentation (entailing potential manipulations) of their effect, rather than an actual understanding of what it is that were poking at.

   1. The Worlds Independence, and Our Metaphysical Limitations.
I would begin by examining our connection to the world as our target of analysis, and its ability to indicate past occurrences would repeat themselves. The first step would be to acknowledge that the world has existed before we did. While the most compelling evidence would come from the field in question, science (as Anthropological support), and though none of us could independently confirm that that is the case, very few objections to this assertion come to mind; which in the context of this paper do not call for a serious response.
If it had been here before us, it would indicate it operates the way it does, whether we formulate laws to explain it to ourselves or not. It is hard to try and strip a law intuition from nature as we are so intuitively inclined by experience to accept the laws of nature. Yet constancy and laws are not one and the same. That is, as Hume argued, the world
appears to behave consistently. It appears to adhere to cycles, appears to repeat


   identical effects for identical causes. Agreeing with Humes reading of the world, I would agree that there is no way for us to verify the next sunrise, but only count on the lack of new conditions that would prevent the sun from keeping on its track. It is here that Humes account draws critical importance to my argument: the world, as far as we can tell, and whether we can formulate them or not, goes on by its own regularities.
Yet those regularities were not originally formulated in math, or uttered in English. Those are regularities outside the human domain. In other words, we, as humans, begin and end our existence in a surrounding we take for granted, a surrounding we feel familiar with. Yet a surrounding wholly independent of our existence.
In this light it becomes a wonder we even come close to describing it. Think of a smaller, easier, translation problem: between languages of the same species. We know how much is lost in the translation process as the holistic weight of the fragments broken down makes the translation inaccurate.
Now apply this to the language of nature we claim to be formulating. It would be hard to imagine nature talking numbers, and yet we come so close to feel it does. So did phlogiston.
The main point I am stressing here is that we must be aware of the fact that our human point of view deems our endeavors as amounting to an attempt at an accurate description of the world around us, at best. Rather than at cracking the code in which natures apparent regularities were formulated.



    It also becomes apparent, from thinking about our accidental relation to the world, that we are yet unable to aim at a metaphysical understanding of what something in nature is since we stumble on a problem of definition. That is, as we cannot formulate an explanation of electricity besides by describing its reactions, its effects, its characteristics, the question arises: Isnt that all we need? Or, is this not the way that we come to understand, everything?
A major blow to metaphysical inflation seems to be forming as we take a stroll into the character of definitions within the human domain.
Take a familiar human phenomenon: pain. You could, along Ramseys line, call it a condition in which we find ourselves when poked with a sharp object. It is a condition in which we make horrible sounds. You could go deeper and more scientific and call it the action of neurons shooting up to the brain to let it know something is penetrating the body. You must, at the end of the day, be able to experience pain to really understand what it is. Yet that does not, in reality, question our understanding of the concept, or our ability to recognize, avoid, treat, or deal with pain.
Take the idea of a ruler. That is the being that rules. That is the role only definable by its consequence: people follow the kings orders, armies follow their orders, etc
We here see how metaphysical uncertainty is common in all we take for granted, in all we feel familiar with. And how this uncertainty does not threaten our usage of that knowledge.



    If you take a step back and separate our human experience from that of boiling magma and Atlantic currents, it appears that the two conjoin only when the natural event becomes relevant to our existence. In other words, we accommodate the world and its phenomenon to suitable definitions, for our own intents and purposes.
While sounding trivial to any metaphysical deflationary out there, this is a crucial point in our relation to the world, and the false intuition that it has laws out there for us to get to the truth of by God-given math.
It is crucial for the next stage of evaluation, that of re-assessing the connection between our knowledge and the world, to realize it is a relationship of convenience. That is, it is a one-sided (human) endeavor to pin-down natural occurrences, governed by cosmic regularities, in a useful and relevant manner, to our human-subjective mode of existence.

   2. The Problem of Attribution, and how it can Falsely Fit the World.
It might be useful, as background to the next phase of evaluation, to take a look at the human experience of knowledge. In early childhood we all ask our parents what happens when you die, whats in outer space, even the seemingly-childish who made us?
We are told we dont know. And we truly dont, in the way we wish we could. Yet by our typical mode of defining anything we have it in the bag. Death is the condition in which you seize to live. Outer-space is what surrounds our solar system. Could there be a more-answer than that?


    Over the second section of this paper I would examine how our knowledge fit the world, and how our knowledge answers, or does not, the needs for which it is gathered.
Building on the two main arguments of the last section: the worlds independence from human analysis, and the inherent metaphysical limitations on what it means for us to know anything, I now turn to assess the accuracy, and possible pitfalls, our knowledge stumbles upon when trying to describe the world.
To start, I would like to present a possible explanation that can be seen as accurately describing world-occurrences, yet can be problematic not in describing the effects, but the cause. Before the Aborigine discovered the jet fighter, the world made more sense. In that world, rain gods roamed the land and took note of the peoples behavior over the summer. If the people were good and prudent, and stocked up enough of the earths bounty over the last winter, the rain gods would grant the desperately-needy land its gift of rain. Yet if the people were wasteful, another harsh and dry winter would befall the land.
In this manner, the ancient people could make sense of the world and feel they have a hand in its outcomes. Since definitions of prudent and wasteful, or good and bad, are so abstract, the people could go on for ages with the comfort of false understanding. However, this loose explanation could not withstand the scrutiny of the first verificationist Aborigine. That is, if at some point in time, an attempt to quantify, measure, and apply the causes to the effects were undertaken, a great deal of inaccuracy



   would be found. Followed by a deep sense of discomfort, a sense of loss as to the understanding of the world.
And than the next generation might come along and find other points of access, other ways to break down the mystery. After many ceremonies and pleas, they may discover that massaging the earth and granting it gifts; feathers, sticks, seeds, pleases the earth. And in return, the gods grant the people their blessing, and a mouthful of vegetable and fruit.
Now this would be a stickier case for them to disentangle, since it would withstand some level of scrutiny. That is, repeated over and again, the same cause of massaging the earth and giving it gifts would consistently produce the same effect: the land, in return, would offer food.
The first case is that of relatively simple attempt to describe the world yielding a loose explanation. It is precisely this type of looseness that science set out to eliminate. And it did. The second case, however, is a trap we can still be facing with more complex phenomenon. That is, the case in which an explanation can fit the world as far as describing, and to some extent predicting, natural phenomenon, yet its described cause would be far from the actual case.
That second case is the first potential pitfall, well exemplified by phlogiston, of the scientific endeavor. While echoing the worlds independence from our existence and our limited human-centered point of view, it reiterates the difficulty in accurately discerning



   true causes. In turn, a difficulty of access into the regularity nature seems to be following, whether we take note or not.
However, much of the danger is now behind us, as the scientific method has helped us to discern causes with greater accuracy. That is, the modern scientist would break down the Aborigines gift to earth and plant each separately. They could then show them how feathers do not yield food, how sticks do the same, and how, only seeds, cause fruit and vegetable to grow.
Only that now the Aborigine, rightfully in their own mind, would realize that seeds alone are the earths favorite gift. And this is where we stumble across the second pitfall: explanatory attribution.
While simplified by the metaphors theological tint, the problem of attribution is real in our day and age. Take global worming and the erosion of the ozone layer. In recent decades, the problem had come to be largely attributed to the introduction of harmful chemical sprays and pollution into the atmosphere. It made apparently perfect scientific sense for two reasons. First, chemically speaking, those harmful human products do not sit well with the components the atmosphere consists of. Second, our human chemical intervention into the ecological system, seems to be the only condition that has changed over the last century.
Yet now days, strong disputes arise as to the accuracy of those attributions. The first argument disputed, and the one harder to prove or disprove by accurate all-inclusive

   

   measurements, is that the quantity and disparity of our chemical intervention seems, to some scientists, to be too weak to cause such an effect.
The second point in contrast to past common scientific belief, is that of the relevancy and weight of our interventional role. That is, Anthropologists have taken measurements of temperature fingerprints out of age-old glaciers, which show the long term cycles of the earths warming, and cooling. Those scientists now oppose the global warming worries as they claim global temperature fluctuates naturally, even before human chemical intervention. Some even claim that the erosion of the Ozone layer is as natural as any erosion we witness down on the ground. The globe indeed is warming. Yet the true answer is yet to be found.
On a utilitarian note, this limited knowledge serves us right to the extent that it makes us aware, and allows us to limit our harmful interventions with our natural habitat. Yet as for the metaphysically inflationary quest for truth, it poses a real difficulty. And it spins our inclination to get it right, sometimes, to the wrong direction.
Thinking of the Aborigines belief that seeds make the earth happy, next to our recent belief that spray cans make the ozone layer disappear, some alarming commonality points itself out. Granted, modern science has a better, microscopic, access into the inner workings of natural elements. Yet breaking down the molecules of the seed does not necessarily dispute the earths liking of it, as the Aborigine maintains. And the microscopic structure of smoke does not necessarily isolate the cause for the problem of



   global warming. And so the problem of accurate attribution, that of discerning and separating the relevant from the irrelevant cause, persists. And the metaphysical
limitation of knowledge, that of referring to the why things happen the way they do, is not a step closer to resolution.
The problem of attribution indeed goes two ways, both for attributing an actual cause, yet misstating its relevance, as recent scientists may have done in blaming modern industry for causing global warming. As well as for attributing actual causes yet imposing a false explanatory value to the process, such as the earths liking of seeds.

   3. The Limits of our Knowledge, and Our Ability to Understand it.
Accepting the world as independent, acknowledging our metaphysical limitations on knowing, and finally, seeing how problematic the connection between our metaphysically-limited knowledge and the independent world can be, point us towards a metaphysically-deflationary point of view.
In other words, even when we know a scientific fact with great feeling of certainty, such as F=ma, we keep stumbling over the Machian problem. That is, it is great that we set up a closed framework, in which we calculate the relations between an objects weight, the force used to throw it, where and when it would lands. But what is T?
This question crystallizes the limited access we have to fully understanding terms we use so often. Terms constituting our understanding of the world we are surrounded by even if we manage to put our finger on regularities.


    The Machian problem is a typical example of our metaphysical dead-end. It is the point where our concepts cannot be broken down to explanatory units and make sense without accepting the disputed term as almost self-defining. It reverses the scientific intuition upside down. It offers an opportunity for us to acknowledge the actual endeavor of science. That of assigning appropriate definition as useful tools for analysis, and to some extent, prediction, of natural phenomenon; rather than discovering natural properties out there.
That is, acknowledging that there is no such numeric property in nature, but rather, that weve formulated a useful, unified, means of measuring the chaos. It is a far more impressive feat to some extent, as the fact that our subjective existence manages to communicate the worlds independent reality so consistently proves we have been on to something very useful.
Apart from our limited access, there is a similar problem in actually understanding that knowledge we gather. Take photosynthesis. We know how microscopic particles in the plants leaf react to the suns warmth. We can map out the chemical transformation of the suns energy into the plants bread and butter. Yet does this mean we understand photosynthesis?
Maybe as much as we understand death. Or outer space. Or even electricity. Once again, we find ourselves as lost in the dark as the curious Aborigine. We know that when X happens, Y usually follows. We know that if X meets Y, Z can happen. Yet we do not



   have access to a theory of everything that would make it all make sense the way we might want it to. And yet again we come upon our own limitations. Those limiting us to an understanding of a concept, any concept, by its attributes, its reactions, its purposes, but not by an inflated IT, or its Platonic Forms.
And the fact that we do not have a metaphysically-inflated understanding of the world seems, to our intents and purposes, to not be a real worry. If science is taken as a project of breaking down nature into tangible human definitions, which in turn allow us to map out its consistent course in ways allowing us to manipulate and predict its behavior in a manner we deem useful to our own purposes, it does the job.

   4. Conclusion: Why Metaphysical Deflation should not have us Worried.
Claiming that science is a descriptive, rather than an explanatory vehicle, makes most of us intuitively uncomfortable. It does so because we rather have a strong, safe, feeling that there is stable truth out there for us to gather, rather than for us to invent.
It does so because we prefer a picture of the world in which mathematics is actually the language of nature we so luckily managed to stumble upon. It does so because it feels that relative truth is too much of a shaky base to be grounding and shaping our perceptions upon.
Yet scientific relativity, as I am referring to it, is not as malleable and unstable as moral-cultural relativity. It is a unified system, only relative to us, humans, which makes it as objective as we can be.


    It is in that sense that I agree with Von Fraussens description of science as objectively true statements about the world, rather than laws in the strict absolute sense. Objective not by their absolute value, but rather by the fact that we, as a human group, are the only relevant reference. That is, as a human endeavor, invented, designed, and used to better our handling of the world around us, true to our intents and purposes is all we are, and all we can be, looking for.
In visualizing the curious Aborigines fussing around the mysterious jet fighter, poking it, probing it, finding regularities and building upon them, I have portrayed the process of reverse-learning by which modern science still cannot tell you, in the grand metaphysical manner, what electricity is. But rather, if you connect it to a wire it would get to the other side and the likes. This visualization is not meant to trivialize or downplay the scientific endeavor. On the contrary, it emphasizes the great challenge undertaken in putting the big questions on hold and moving forward with a "I dont know what it is but I can tell you what it does" blindfold on. This visualization is my token of amazement and awe at the scientific advancement which has enabled us to harness natural resources, mix them, melt them, boil and shuffle, synthesize, and produce a machine that can fly.
It appears that those are indeed the limits of our capacity for knowledge, in light of which it is breathtaking that weve managed to get so far. And it appears that the scientific system is fulfilling the purpose for which we practice it. Not merely the almost derogative advice for building a better toaster, but rather our only means of access to the complex, detached world we live in.

    It grants us all the knowledge we are capable of understanding in a manner we are accustomed to. That of X causes Y, that of X and Y combined make Z. And the fact that it cannot tell us, in the grand sense, what X is, or why does it cause Y, is not a flaw in the scientific system. But rather an inherent limitation we stumble upon whenever we try to access the independent world from within our human-relative set of terms, definitions: our thought process.
And for that we ought to feel relieved. Since without it were back to guessing the moods of the gods


Ohad Maiman