Idle Theory The Stalled Empire of Science

The greatest enterprise of the mind has always been and always will be the attempted linkage of the sciences and the humanities. The ongoing fragmentation of knowledge and resulting chaos in philosophy are not reflections of the real world but artifacts of scholarship.
(Edward O. Wilson. Consilience. Ch. 2)

In many ways, Idle Theory is an attempt to get physics into ethics. And in so doing it strays off the borders of science. But why doesn't science try to get into ethics?

It might be suggested that Science - and by this is meant primarily theoretical physics and its extensions - has the character of an intellectual empire. It has expanded remorsely from first principles to provide a unified explanation within the fields of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and to some extent biology. Its remorseless, slow-grinding mathematical logic can and has defeated every contender. The power of this science is felt in every field of engineering, and indeed throughout all human affairs.

But, while it continues to expand its knowledge, it very largely confines itself to the natural world that humanity perceives around itself, and it does not much study humanity itself. And the result is that beyond the borders of the rational provinces of sciences, there remain many largely irrational barbarian provinces, governed by warring dogmatists of one sort or other. And these provinces are very arguably of urgent interest to humanity: the provinces of economics, ethics, politics, law, and religion.

Economists might argue that modern Western economic philosophy is a science. But while it is true that it is generally of an empirical character, and very often highly mathematical, it is almost entirely disconnected from mathematical-physical science. Economics has its own separate set of founders - Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Alfred Marshall, and many others. And it has its own language. And it it is not a language in which physical concepts such as work and energy are employed.

Religious beliefs, furthermore, are often portrayed as being the antithesis of science, and mere superstition and credulity. Yet, if religious beliefs are instead regarded as being the most fundamental and all-encompassing world views, which provide the deep context of all human life, its past and its future, there is no particular reason to suppose that such world views must inevitably be irrational superstitions. What are now held by many to be entirely irrational, may once have been the state-of-the-art rationality of past millennia.

Political science, if it exists at all, merely consists in the history of political movements of one sort or other.

And ethics is regarded by most scientists as being entirely beyond the scope of science. These scientists regularly declare that "Science studies what is the case, not what ought to be the case", or that "Science is value-free", before returning to their study of black holes and neutrinos.

Indeed, it might be suggested that it is principally in the province of ethics that science is absent, and consequently the principal reason why it is absent from economics - which is concerned with how people value things, and put prices to them. And law might be regarded as the enforcement of ethics. And again, politics may be regarded as applied social ethics, with politicians and political philosophers having various differing views on what constitutes the good life, and the ideal society. And again, religious beliefs might be described as being very largely concerned with prescribing ethical codes of conduct - e.g. the Ten Commandments. And so economics, politics, and religion are all united by being essentially ethical in nature. And the reason that science can't get into economics and politics and religion is primarily because science can't get into ethics.

Facts and Values

And so the empire of science is bounded on one side by a border between facts and values, between what is the case and what ought to be the case. Across this Rubicon, science dares not stray. And the result is that all sorts of political and and economic and religious cults and enthusiams proliferate and multiply on the far side of this Rubicon, while the generals of science gaze on in impotent dismay. A once outward-looking, expansive science has become increasingly inward-looking, and set upon simply holding at bay the barbarian irrationality that flourishes beyond its borders.

But how real is this border? In what way are facts and values so fundamentally and irreconcilably different? How, historically, did this distinction arise?

Historically, science follows David Hume, an 18th century Scottish philosopher, who first established the division between "is" and "ought", questioning whether it was possible to argue from what is the case to what ought to be the case:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers ; and am persuaded, that this small attention wou'd subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv’d by reason.
David Hume: Treatise of Human Nature

It is ultimately from this observation by Hume that the whole dichotomy between facts ('is' statements) and values ('ought' statements) appears to have arisen. And yet Hume himself was not a scientist. He was a witty and agile philosopher. And so here we have a case of a non-scientist, using a non-scientific argument, dictating what science can and cannot do. Why should science surrender before such an argument? Indeed, is it not astonishing that science has accepted Hume's division? Indeed, it might even be suggested that Hume himself would have been astonished to learn of the consequences, for two and a half centuries, of his casual remarks.

And yet, in great measure, science has accepted Hume's fact-value dichotomy. It is almost the conventional wisdom of science that it deals with facts, not values - and that science is value-free. For the most part it seems that only evolutionary biologists like E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, with genetic theories that extend to encompass human psychology and behaviour, are prepared to cross the fact-value border. But evolutionary biology, although an interesting recent development, would appear at present to be at best borderline science, at worst good science fiction.

But ultimately, the claims of science to knowledge are unlimited. If there is something that can be known, science will one day claim to know it. Are we really to suppose that our magnificent science is never ever going to be able to tell us anything about ethics, economics, politics, and law, not just in the present day, but at any point in the future? Are we really to suppose that this fact-value dichotomy is going to be as insurmountable a barrier in the year 6677 as it appears to be in the year 2006? I mean, really? Is there really no way round?

It might be different if science itself had restricted itself to the study of facts, and ruled out any study of values. If Newton's Principia Mathematica, or Einstein's Theory of Relativity, had included a rider or appendix forbidding science from ever entering ethics, along with a suitably arcane mathematical proof, it might have created a far more considerable obstruction than anything that Hume ever provided. If the great doctors of science had decreed this, it would have provided a very considerable impediment. But since it is in the nature of science to be forever questioning its own authority figures (much as Einstein questioned Newton, and Gauss questioned Euclid), even such authoritative statements are always likely to be questioned within science. After all, science itself grew out of the questioning of the authority of such giants as Aristotle.

Re-uniting Ought and Is

The distinction between 'is' and 'ought' is a purely linguistic distinction, a matter of language, and of peculiar importance to philosophers because most philosophy is wordy stuff.

But science does not deal primarily in words. Science is not purely verbal debate. It is about the observation of nature, and the formulation of hypotheses to account for the behaviour of the natural world.

And in the natural world of plants and animals, it is perfectly clear that animals that move around, eat, drink, sleep, flee, hide, have some sort of internal guidance system, or survival strategy, that is directing their activities, in exactly the same sort of way that a heat-seeking missile has an internal guidance system. These guidance systems direct animals to eat some foods, avoid others, search for food using eyes or noses, escape or hide from predators, sleep when sated, mate, and so forth. These guidance systems are, in effect, value systems. Cattle and sheep value grass and leaves as food. Tigers and wolves value cattle and sheep as food. Their value systems may not be conscious, and they may not be variable, but instead be genetically hardwired into them, but they exist in some form or other. Part and parcel of any living creature is something that tells it what to do and when to do it - that tells plants to grow branches and leaves in spring and discard them in autumn, to flower and drop seeds; that tells animals to mate and reproduce and to find food and water and shelter. And these value systems or guidance systems must have been evolving over millions of years along with every other component of their bodies - legs, stomachs, hearts, teeth. And we know where these guidance systems are sited: in the brains of animals, and probably in every cell of plants. And without these guiding value systems, animals would die just as certainly if they lacked legs or teeth or hearts. A guiding and directing value system of some sort is an essential component of any plant or animal. Without these controlling strategies telling them what to do, no plant or animal could function any more than an automobile engine could function without a distributor to sequence the ignitions in its cylinders.

And if every living creature must have some sort of guiding value system, to direct its activities, telling it what it ought to do before it goes and does it, then 'oughtness' is a component part of the 'isness' of life, and 'ought' is simply another kind of 'is'. It is of absolutely no account whether the survival strategies of living creatures are conscious and variable, or unconscious and hard-wired into into their every cell. In either case, living creatures respond to unfolding circumstances in one way or other.

Of course, it may be asked of any living creature's value system or survival strategy whether it is a 'good' survival strategy, and whether it might not be improved upon in some way. But this is precisely what the process of evolution is continually doing, continually testing and refining value systems in the same way that it tests and refines bones and muscles and other bodily organs. We may feel confident that a species of cattle that did not value grass and leaves as food, but preferred stones and gravel, is long extinct, along with its value system. And we may be equally confident that a species of tiger that always attempted to catch the fastest and strongest of its prey, rather than the slowest and weakest, is also long extinct. Bad survival strategies earn their users an early death, and good ones keep their users alive long enough to reproduce and pass on their survival strategies to their offspring. And in this manner, survival strategies are refined and honed to near-perfection.

And if every living creature must have, of necessity, some inbuilt survival strategy, or guiding value system that leads it to prefer to act in one way rather than another, then the fact-value dichotomy simply vanishes. Value systems are essential components of living creatures, and as much part of what they are as legs and hearts and bones and muscles. There is no fact-value dichotomy in nature: there is only a fact-value dichotomy in the minds of philosophers.

Natural Value Systems

And once it is established that values, value systems, and survival strategies are part of the natural world of plants and animals, it becomes possible to hypothesize about them in them in the same way that we can hypothesize about the motion of planets, and the formation of rivers and mountains.

Geneticists and evolutionary biologists would probably argue that value systems are encoded in the genetic makeup of living creatures. And in this they are almost certainly correct. However, while this is probably true of the simplest of organisms, that their survival strategies are hardwired into them as unalterable set of rules, the same is not likely to be the case with any creature with a brain that allows it to learn or devise new survival strategies. In this case, the genetic underpinning must be one that allows survival strategies to become modifiable software, so that in a rapidly changing environment survival strategies can be rapidly changed. And there may also be some genetic basis for deciding which strategies are better than other strategies.

Idle Theory's hypothesis is that living creatures are ultimately governed by a Principle of Least Action. Although life appears to be essentially active and busy, Idle Theory supposes that living creatures are generally attempting to do as little work as possible in order to survive, always doing what is easiest. Thus grazing cattle will generally tend to eat leaves and grasses that are nearest to them, rather than those furthest away. And they will generally try to live in areas where plant life is abundant, rather than where it is scarce. And they will generally be trying to find and consume those foods which provide them with the most nutrient energy for the least effort in acquiring it. And since Idle Theory regards living creatures as alternating between periods of being busy finding and consuming food, and idly doing nothing, then the the most successful creatures will generally be found to be the idlest creatures.

And indeed, the natural world is not a hive of continuous activity. Grazing animals do not spend their whole time grazing, nor do predators spend their whole time hunting. Instead they alternate between working and sleeping. Birds do not spend the whole time flying around, but instead spend long periods just sitting on tree branches or overhead cables. And at night, many living creatures sleep in the same way that humans sleep, only rousing themselves to activity when day breaks.

And if some creatures are found to be nearly continuously busy looking for food, it may be said of them that they are approaching the brink of death and extinction. For if some creature must spend its entire time looking for food in some condition of scarcity, then there may not be enough hours in the day for it to find sufficient food if the condition of scarcity worsens.

From Plants and Animals to Human Life.

In Idle Theory, and indeed in all naturalistic thought, human life is regarded as simply another variant of mammalian life. We have pretty much the same bones, muscles, intestines, hearts, eyes, ears and teeth as other mammals. And we share the same organic chemistry, and much of the same genes. If anything, many animals are physically superior to us in speed and strength. But we seem to have the largest brains. And we've used these brains to design whole systems of tools, and construct whole systems of knowledge.

And if we share so much with our animal cousins, and are simply another species of animal, in studying human life we are necessarily also studying animal life.

And in considering human life, it is possible to suggest that the Principle of Least Action also applies. Most of our technological innovations can be regarded as work-minimizing. If we created farms, on which plants such as wheat and barley were grown in close proximity, and penned grazing animals, it was most likely because this made it easier to gather plant foods, and slaughter animals. And if we yoked oxen to ploughs and wagons, it was so as to make them do the work we would otherwise have done. And if we used stone axes and spades and bags and ropes, it was because these tools expedited our work. And if we traded tools and animals, it was because this extended the benefit of our developing technology to the widest extent. Human history can be regarded as one long attempt to minimize work, and to maximize a leisure in which it became possible to engage in games, in sports, in literature and theatre and art and music, and in everything that we call human culture. If no leisure, then no culture. All the wealth of the world, all the amusements and toys and decorations and adornments that we call 'wealth' are purchased by leisure, for it is only in our idle time that we can make and trade and enjoy these things.

And it is perfectly apparent that humans are by nature lazy and indolent. We generally prefer play to work. And we general prefer weekends and holidays to working weekdays. If humans were by nature busy and industrious, there would be no constant injunction to "do something", to "work hard", to "keep busy". If we were naturally busy, we would have no need of a "work ethic". If we were naturally industrious, we would instead more likely to be calling upon ourselves to "slow down", "take it easy", and the like.

But while this natural indolence is generally regarded as a human vice or failing, it is instead perhaps our greatest virtue. It is precisely because we are lazy that we invent ways of doing work more quickly or easily. If we were not lazy, would not have invented all these tools that we now use. If we preferred work to leisure, we would never have invented any labour-saving devices - and we would probably be extinct as a result of it.

But this outline of human history and human nature runs quite contrary to the commonsense view that human history has been driven by people who got off their backsides and did something, creating human civilisation with all its many achievements, rather than idly languishing in mud huts. And in this respect Idle Theory is not a common sense view of human life. The common sense view of human life is that we were once idle and poor, and that it was only when we set ourselves to work that things started happening. Idle Theory's paradoxical, upside down view is that we were once busy and poor, and human progress has been all about getting idle and rich.

And, to return to 'is' and 'ought', when we consider what we ought to do, we are generally considering ways of increasing our leisure, and minimizing our work. And if the ethical codes that we devise in this respect have the force of law, it is because the price of failing to minimize our work is not just material poverty, but death and extinction.

And even science operates in accordance with the Principle of Least Action. The best hypotheses are generally the most elegant and simple explanations. Science generally prefers the simplest ideas to the most unwieldy and complex. And to the extent that scientific knowledge is always tending towards becoming unified, it is tending to become simplified.

Mathematics, to a great extent, is concerned with simplifying. Mathematical equations such as ax + b = c are shorthand notations which would be cumbersome if expressed in everyday language. And if we use a decimal notation such the number three is written as 3 it is because this is simpler and easier than an older Latin notation in which three is written as III.

Even Newton's laws of motion may be regarded as exemplifying the Principle of Least Action. A body continues in a state of rest or uniform motion, according to the first Law of Motion, because work would have to be done to slow it down or speed it up or change its direction, and so by the Principle of Least Action, given no action at all, a body will simply continue in its state of rest or uniform motion. And if, according to the Second Law of Motion, a body accelerates when a force is exerted upon it, it is because work would have to be done to counter that force and prevent the acceleration, and the so the path of Least Action is that of acceleration in the direction of the force. And if planets subjected to the continual gravitational force of attraction of a central sun turn in orbits around that sun, it is because they are following the path of Least Action.

The Impending Science of Ethics

While the empire of science may at present have halted on the fact-value border, and its generals show little inclination to cross the border, it is very likely that sooner or later they will change their minds. And one likely trigger for this will be that the rational and semi-rational cults and sects that control ethics, economics, politics, law, and religion are sooner or later likely to bring about disaster. This is as inevitable as a airliner piloted by a 10-year-old child crashing. Almost all the problems of our modern world are ethical, economic, political, and religious in nature, and hardly any are scientific. When politicians and economists and lawyers and moralists don't really know what they're doing, when they don't really understand what's going on, disaster will inevitably ensue. While these people retain some veneer of respectability, while they at least appear to be in control, they will be allowed to continue to run things. But when it becomes apparent, as sooner or later it will become apparent, that they have no real idea what they are doing, the demand for real understanding, real knowledge - in short, science - will intensify. In fact, it will become imperative. And at that point, science will be forced to shrug off the fact-value dichotomy, cross the Rubicon, and seize control.

One day this will happen. Whether science will attack using genetic evolutionary biology, or Idle Theory, or something completely different, remains an open question. What is certain is that one day science will cross the fact-value border, to oust barbaric irrationality with sweet reason.

The prospect that science might one day extend into ethics and economics is one which many people regard with dread. Such people - almost invariably non-scientists - tend to see science as entirely heartless, deterministic, and dead. They think of the war of the humanities with science is the war of war of warm, heartfelt humanism with the cold, implacable, deterministic, and numerical rationality of science. And they believe that the introduction of science into the humanities would bring an end to freedom and plurality, and the beginning of a terrible tyranny beneath the iron laws of physics. And they fear that quantity would replace quality, and we would all have numbers instead of names.

This isn't an entirely baseless fear. After all, while science stands outside ethics, it remains value-free and amoral. And while science stands outside life, it remains cold and heartless. But once science enters into ethics, and into life, it will inevitably acquire values, and inevitably acquire a heart. It will simply become a fuller, more well-rounded kind of science that it presently is.

As for imposing some kind of awful determinism, it should be said that science only seeks to understand the laws of nature so that it can surpass them. If we are able to launch spacecraft from the Earth, it is because our understanding of the laws of motion and gravitation, far from condemning us to subjection to those laws, actually permits us to work within the constraints of those laws to devise ways of working around them. To understand the laws of motion and gravitation is not to merely understand that we are stuck on the face of this planet, but to begin to understand how we might rise up above it. It is only people who do not understand these laws who are condemned to be utterly subject to them. To understand the laws of physics is also to be liberated from them, and to not understand them is to be held in subjection to them - just as having a map of the streets of a city allows someone to know where they are and where they may go, and not having a map means being lost. Knowledge is not a tyrant: it is a liberator. To know the singular truth is not to be imprisoned within its singularity: to know the truth is to be set free.

And so the arrival of real understanding - of science - is never going to result in some awful tyranny of numbers and laws and inscrutable equations, and is always going to bring liberation.

But if non-scientists fear the consequences of a scientific invasion of the humanities, it might also be suggested that many scientists may well prefer to leave the fact-value border in place, and continue to work on problems of the inanimate physical world. For in some profound senses science has always offered a rational escape from an otherwise messy and irrational world. The contemplation of the stars is the contemplation of a celestial order which exists in stark contrast to dirty, messy, and brutal human life. And to the extent that any scientist engages in science so as to escape from that messy and disorderly everyday life, to contemplate the beauty and perfection of mathematics and physics, to that extent they are not going to want to return to what they want to escape. Such scientists, if they exist, might be compared to hermits who fled from disordered society into the wastes of deserts, to live in caves, or sit as stylites on top of stone pillars (or ivory towers). But in the end, the stylites and hermits and monks came out of their desert refuges, and returned to ordinary society, as teachers and guides. What first sets out to escape, ultimately returns. And what once seemed impossible, one day becomes possible.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: May 2006
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