The clarity of apathy

We care too much about philosophical topics ever to agree about them, and we achieve widespread successful consensus on scientific matters because we care very little which theory turns out to be true. The beauty and utility of math and science are there for anyone to see, but it’s not as if any one would kill, die, be celibate, or riot over them. Math and science of themselves, cut off from any reference to the mytho-philosophical (like the praise or the defiance of the gods) are not the sort of thing that one would think to praise in epic poetry, polyphonic splendor à la a Gounod Mass, or even a pop song.

[I]t is clear that our attitude toward any given proposition may have a very large number of different “coordinates”. We form simultaneous judgments as to whether it is probable, whether it is desirable, whether it is interesting, whether it is amusing, whether it is important, whether it is beautiful, whether it is morally right, etc. If we assume that each of these judgments might be represented by a number, a fully adequate state of mind would be represented by a vector in a space of very large and perhaps indefinitely large number of dimensions.

Not all propositions require this. For example, the proposition :the refractive index of water is 1.3″ generates no emotions; consequently the state of mind which it produces has very few coordinates. On the other hand, the proposition “your wife just wrecked your new car” generates a state of mind with an extremely large set of coordinates. A moment’s introspection will show that, quite generally, the situations of everyday life are those involving the greatest number of coordinates. It is just for that reason that the most familiar examples of mental activity are the most difficult ones to reproduce by a model. We might speculate that this is the reason why natural science and mathematics are the most successful human activities; they deal with propositions that produce the simplest of all mental states.

E.T. Jaynes How Does the Brain Do Plausible Reasoning? p. 3


  1. Timotheos said,

    April 12, 2016 at 11:20 am

    I always like to say that even a mathematician doubts his math when he finds out that he has come up short on the rent; people are much more ready to grant things when it costs them almost nothing to do so.

    Honestly though, I always have thought that this objection, that mathematics/science has some sort of magically certainty that everyone agrees on, just does not apply to how mathematics is done, even when there is a proof; just look at the debates over transfinite arithmetic for heavens sake!

    And having done some minor work in mathematics myself, I have noted well first hand that metaphysical arguments are almost always put payed to much higher levels of “scrutiny” than mathematical axioms are pratically ever questioned with; I doubt 9/10ths of mathematics would retain its current status as certain if it were questioned with even half as much vigor as most metaphysical claims are fought against with.

    • April 12, 2016 at 12:11 pm

      Honestly though, I always have thought that this objection, that mathematics/science has some sort of magically certainty that everyone agrees on, just does not apply to how mathematics is done

      Another element in this is the presence of The Scientific CommunityTM which arose after the Great War: a group of supercharged gatekeepers that herd together, are suckers for charismatic priests, viciously burn heretics, and dispense the saintly blessing of peer review. It’s unclear how much science worship is really just blind repeating of their propaganda. They do some great work of course, but one can’t help feeling that a great part of their allure arises from the fact that we are kept from seeing all the voices they silence. Good grief: two of the main gatekeepers in America are Leiter and Coyne!

      Unanimity as such is not a great good – totalitarian regimes have more than any just society has or should have. Still, It’s hard to argue against the fact that scientific consensus is longer lasting and more broad than the few moments of philosophical consensus we’ve reached (like idealism in Victorian philosophy, or Thomism in the time between the Vatican Councils)

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