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The Purpose Of The Universe And Other Easy Questions
February 9, 2010 11:40 AM   Subscribe

The Disenchanted Naturalist's Guide to Reality (see also)
posted by anotherpanacea (31 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oooh, looks like a good read - as a Naturalist (not a naturalist although I am a Naturist) this should be right up my alley.
posted by jtron at 11:46 AM on February 9, 2010


I thought this looked great too but it turns out an editor is badly needed.
posted by bearwife at 12:03 PM on February 9, 2010


So his point is, "the world and everything in it has no purpose, so we should all get over it"? Maybe I'm not following the writing very well. What's the thesis?

Also, he seems to go off the rails at the end with statements like this:
"Since, as science can show, Darwin’s solution is the only one possible in biology, it must be the only one possible in social science."

Not seeing the justification for that.
posted by lholladay at 12:04 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was chill, and so with him. And then he brought out the evolutionary psychology.

Tragic.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:13 PM on February 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


Even if scientists came clean however, most people wouldn’t accept the answers science gives to the persistent questions because they can’t understand the answers. The reason is that the answers don’t come in the form of stories with plots.

I'm right and you're wrong because you're stupid! No one understands me!

While I don't disagree with some of the points, I had a hard time reading past this.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:17 PM on February 9, 2010


The reason is that the answers don’t come in the form of stories with plots.

This guy is full of shit. I plotted a bunch of data last Friday.

No, wait. Uh, I plotted a bunch of data last Friday. This suggests that this guy is full of shit.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:27 PM on February 9, 2010 [5 favorites]


As he says, this is the précis of an argument.

I don't believe Rosenberg is in favor of the just-so style socio-biology/evolutionary psychology we see in the popular press, which he seems to suggest is just warmed-over Spencerism, but if you disagree with the in-principle argument that social institutions and rituals need to be reducible in some explanatory way to Darwinian biology, I'd like to hear that argument made explicity. (Much of this is covered in the second link, in the distinction between ontological and methodological naturalism.)
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:29 PM on February 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


You could just as well argue that, like morality, we believe in science not because it is true, but because it confers a survival advantage.
posted by Pyry at 12:33 PM on February 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


I like how his opinions are unavoidable facts and conflicting opinions are delusions. That speaks really well to the potency of his belief system.
posted by Scattercat at 12:37 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


"No quotation without express permission, please."
posted by kuatto at 12:43 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm sold by the psychedelic warp bubble logo.
posted by Babblesort at 12:45 PM on February 9, 2010


ive always liked the fact that biological systems appear to be in statistically improbable configurations---seemingly in violation of the 2nd law. to me it seemed nice/spiritual/magical/enthralling.... and then this guy calls adaptation "wasteful" and "inefficient".

to the contrary: adaptation is an incredibly efficient and streamlined process for creating complexity out of heat energy.
posted by dongolier at 12:47 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


ive always liked the fact that biological systems appear to be in statistically improbable configurations---seemingly in violation of the 2nd law.

The laws of thermodynamics apply only to closed systems. The Earth is not a closed system. There is a massive source of incoming energy about one AU away.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:55 PM on February 9, 2010 [8 favorites]


I should have stopped at our universally shared moral core. And by "stopped", I mean "laughed".

Of course, this guy also thinks that we can't expect history and the historical versions of the social sciences to provide anything more than diverting stories -- and I can see why, because these two beliefs go together like proof-by-assertion chocolate and ignoring-contrary-data peanut butter!
posted by vorfeed at 12:55 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


We all lie awake some nights asking questions about the universe, its meaning, our place in it, the meaning of life, and our lives, who we are, what we should do, as well as questions about god, free will, morality, mortality, the mind, emotions, love.

I like it when people speaking for themselves feel free to speak for everyone else while they are at it.
posted by three blind mice at 1:13 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I, parenthetically speaking, would never use as many commas in my thoughts while, lying awake at night, pondering the meaning of the universe and life as, to be honest, I just don't have the will because the drugs, you see, they make me slee....
posted by WolfDaddy at 1:19 PM on February 9, 2010


adaptation is an incredibly efficient and streamlined process for creating complexity out of heat energy.

Bah. Tell that to a species with a type III survivorship curve. How is having thousands (or millions) of offspring, destined to become predator chow, on the gamble that one or two of them will reach adulthood, either efficient or streamlined? It is more efficient than any other way of creating a biological system, but that's not saying much, since the only other way is to not do it at all.

As for determinism and the denial of real free will, that is a conclusion which, so to speak, goes without saying for scientism.

The author seemed admirably willing to bite some philosophical bullets, but many of them don't seem necessary for a scientific viewpoint. Compatibilism would be as acceptable as determinism, though it always seems to get left out of the determinism/free will philosophical wank fests. No fun having a good argument when some bunch of killjoys comes along and resolves it for you, I guess. Especially when they were all dead before your grandpa was born.

But we need to move most of the works now on the non-fiction list to their rightful places among the magic realist romances, the historical and biographical novels, and the literary confessions.

Mostly he seems to take reasonably good ideas and stretch them beyond all reason. Recognizing the effects of subjectivity, culture, and biology on all thought hardly makes a history book and a novel useful in the same ways, and when your philosophy says it does, that means there's something in it you need to recheck.

Embracing the label "scientism" is a great idea, btw.
posted by crake at 1:31 PM on February 9, 2010


Your favo(u)rite worldview sucks.
posted by no_moniker at 1:34 PM on February 9, 2010


to the contrary: adaptation is an incredibly efficient and streamlined process for creating complexity out of heat energy.

Out of a minuscule amount of the total heat energy actually being generated...

I liked the article. Rosenberg is clearly being provocative, and there are some excellent responses to his work in the comments section - including some quite reasonable compatibilist ones (that I disagree with for various reasons).

I'm halfway between those two outlooks - I agree with Rosenberg for the most part, but think he is throwing the baby out with the bathwater by refusing to look at higher level constructions (mental states, ethical codes) as useful granulations of basic scientifistic stuff that don't necessarily require even a compatibilist sense of intentionality to explain the existence of.

But I'm only halfway through this (admittedly long) page, so we'lll see how the discussion progresses. Thanks for the link, anotherpanacea.
posted by Sparx at 1:48 PM on February 9, 2010


The reason is that the answers don’t come in the form of stories with plots.

Science does come with a story and plot. It's just not a very good one.
posted by Faze at 1:48 PM on February 9, 2010


Science does come with a story and plot. It's just not a very good one.

The point he's making is that people like to hear stories that conform to narrative structures they're used to hearing. Reality doesn't conform to those structures, however, and the fact that people expect it to tends to fuck us up as a species.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:53 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


How is having thousands (or millions) of offspring, destined to become predator chow, on the gamble that one or two of them will reach adulthood, either efficient or streamlined?

more offspring, more chance for "improvement" in terms of mutations.
posted by dongolier at 1:56 PM on February 9, 2010


Even in a precis, this guy's verbose...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 2:00 PM on February 9, 2010


The reason is that the answers don’t come in the form of stories with plots.

I was just reading Dirac's biography and was intrigued at how insistent he was that truth is equivalent to beauty. And that if the solution was not beautiful then ultimately it would prove to be untrue.

He was one of the geekiest, most hardcore physicists/mathematicians we have ever had. And even he believed that the true nature of reality was intimately tied with aesthetics and narrative.

Perhaps the answers aren't perfect stories then.
The answers are more like poems.
posted by vacapinta at 2:06 PM on February 9, 2010 [6 favorites]


The concept that nature should somehow be efficient is ridiculous; efficiency is a human concept and is judged according to what human beings find efficient. This is a demonstration of how even the most dedicated naturalists can find themselves anthropomorphizing the universe; we are of it and not vice versa.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:08 PM on February 9, 2010


The answers are more like poems.

I'd echo that. The more I learn about the natural world, the more blown-away I am by it's elegance, beauty for lack of a better word.

The results of science aren't a moral void, but a subtext on the human experience, in my opinion. Knowing how colours are produced or the mechanics behind a door lock or why baked beans can stay firm, yet go buttery in the mouth don't reduce my enjoyment of experiences; the knowledge enriches. I don't see the connection to ethics though.
posted by bonehead at 2:36 PM on February 9, 2010


How is having thousands (or millions) of offspring, destined to become predator chow, on the gamble that one or two of them will reach adulthood, either efficient or streamlined?

--
more offspring, more chance for "improvement" in terms of mutations.


Taking advantage of systemic inefficiency isn't the same thing as efficiency. A system that could recognize adaptations likely to work, and not even try clearly bad mutations, would be less wasteful of a species' resources. It would also be impossible, of course--it would require intelligence, or some equivalent, and anything that complex would itself have to evolve, presumably by plain old messy natural selection.

imaginary Winston Churchill on evolution: "It has been said that democracy natural selection is the worst form of government way to produce living organisms except all the others that have been tried.

Which doesn't mean that evolution isn't effective, and its products aren't beautiful; but the effectiveness is brutal, and the beauty comes after generations of mistakes, failure, and death.
posted by crake at 2:48 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Efficiency and inefficiency are the next best things to moral judgment. Optimization is a human virtue, not a natural one. The only thing that matters is that some of the organisms survive. Nature isn't perfect, it's good enough.
posted by bonehead at 2:59 PM on February 9, 2010


A system that could recognize adaptations likely to work, and not even try clearly bad mutations, would be less wasteful of a species' resources

to be more precise here: by adaptation i mean the process by which one species gives rise to a new one with a different niche and different traits.

it is this process which accounts for all the diversity we see in the living world---all these neat funny little organic machines with their fascinating structures and patterns.

my issue with Rosenberg is his derision toward the "inefficient" and "wasteful" mutation/selection system, when, its this same system that creates all the incredible complexity we see in Life from a boring list of elements: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, phosphorus and sulfur; plus a bunch of solar energy.

To complain like he does with these anthropomorphic terms, you'd hope he would define a "better" way. (i think thats his deterministic universe with the one first "sliver of an adaptation"---which ignores the value of the resulting Complexity, Diversity, Ecology, etc...)
posted by dongolier at 3:29 PM on February 9, 2010


the true nature of reality was intimately tied with aesthetics and narrative.

Aesthetics, yes:

While many areas of higher cognition are likely involved in assessing the truth-value of linguistic propositions, the final acceptance of a statement as “true,” or its rejection as “false,” seems to rely on more primitive, hedonic processing in the medial prefrontal cortex and the anterior insula. Truth may be beauty, and beauty truth, in more than a metaphorical sense, and false propositions might actually disgust us.

Narrative? I think the problem there is that you've got to make a case for it. Some people are more likely to accept a poem, but that doesn't make a poem the best account. It seems like narratives and plots don't feed the side of our brains that actually does the work of discovering the nature of reality. Instead, these kinds of accounts feed the side of brains that wants to fit in with others of our species and is willing to pretend to believe anything to do it, including the claim that bread turns into the flesh of a long-dead martyr whenever a guy in a funny outfit says special words over it.
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:56 PM on February 9, 2010


Oh shoot, I realized one weekend that On The Human had never made it to an FPP, and planned to make one myself during a weekday... but I guess I forgot. The whole site on its own is worthy of an FPP.
posted by painquale at 6:20 PM on February 9, 2010


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