The Devil’s in the Details

5 Sep

For richly meaningful communication and technology, acute specification is a necessary condition.  This specification implies an empirically informed semantics, along with the formal notations and methods which complete it.

Making specific, interesting, and novel claims about physically accessible stuff in the real world raises the stakes very quickly.  A rock either floats in Crater Lake or it doesn’t.  Lightning is either physically related to static electricity or it is not.  A verbal command either produces the desired response or fails to.  A scientific equation either produces correct, unique, and useful predictions or it doesn’t.  A drug either produces statistically significant effects or it doesn’t.  Either Google Maps can find a practical route from A to B or it can’t.  Either a product is profitable for a company during a given period or it isn’t.

Being originally specific and bold in this manner is an excellent way to rapidly gain or lose credibility.  Furthermore, specification of hypotheses enables a paring of the search space.  Even if I get something unequivocally wrong, at least I’ve learned about one definite dead-end.  If I never raise the stakes of specification enough to risk being blatantly wrong, then I might leave myself fields upon fields of weeds to frolic in.  That’s a special kind of freedom.

(The relation between the concept of health and the concept of specification might be interesting.  I mention this here as a reminder of the complexities of certain physical questions.)

It’s obvious enough, but I suspect this intuition about getting down to relevant specifics tends to get buried outside of particular experiments.  Some scientists seem hostile towards philosophy today, and I suspect it’s this intuition about high-stakes specifics that undergirds part of the animosity.  Scientists realize that many people who call themselves philosophers are employing horribly vague language which can be easily reinterpreted in an ad hoc fashion as suits the agenda of the philosophers.  There seem to be infinitely many free parameters.  Scientists are supposed to winnow possibilities as much as possible instead of accumulating them like signatures at Disneyland, so it’s not surprising that they’d take issue with this behavior.  They realize how unproductive it is.

Meanwhile, a so-called philosopher might throw around a lot of important-sounding words like “the infinite”, “morality”, “consciousness”, “intentionality”, “fanny”, and so on.  This type of rhetoric can make the words of the “philosopher” seem very important and wondrous — even as the words may be effectively meaningless.  The words play fast and easy with basic intuitions and emotions that we all have.

However, this idea of stakes has not been completely lost on philosophy, and William James’ The Will to Believe is a wonderful example of philosophy at its best.  I don’t endorse everything in the essay, but there’s no doubt that WJ knew how to usefully get to the point.

Good philosophy has to somehow connect to bearing stakes, otherwise it will succumb to the most damning criticisms of metaphysics.  If philosophy isn’t putting anything on the line and isn’t providing anything original — especially if it can’t, structurally speaking — then it has no good answer for the criticism.  Its stakes will not be identical to those of science(if so, philosophy is redundant), but it’s got to have something analogous.  If there is no sense of an arrow of time in philosophy, then there might be something rotten in Kierkegaard’s Denmark.  Ew.

Maybe it’s like the 20 questions game.  The early questions are intended to knock out huge regions of the search space, but they usually yield general information instead of highly specified data.



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