A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Finality vs. Efficiency


Once Upon a Time in the West
There was this little thing called the Scientific Revolution.  This tends to loom large in a number of areas, like Science Fiction and tendentious web sites where Science!™ is worshiped as a god, used as a club, but seldom discussed as such.  
A Curious Thing
Not a very short time ago, I became aware of a curious thing: Whenever Science!™ was extolled as the omnicompetent Guide to Life, it was very seldom science itself that was stroked.  Rather, it was technology and invention. Science fiction generally features submarines, time machines, elixirs of immortality, trips to the Moon (Mars, Stars), and suchlike other Wonderful Inventions.  It really ought to be called Techno-fiction or Invention Fiction. 

One seldom hears science herself praised, but rather some practical end achieved supposedly with the aid of science.
How dare you criticize Science!™  Just look at air travel! 
Not, mind you, "Just look at Cayley and his formulation of the four aerodynamic forces of weight, lift, drag, and thrust."  Although Cayley may be quickly googled and presented when it is pointed out that the Wright brothers were not scientists, and it therefore becomes necessary to unearth a scientist behind the Wrights, it is still true that the immediate impulse is to cite some profitable product that spun out of science, and not the science itself. 

Of course, Cayley was an engineer.  In one sense, he could not have been a scientist because the neologism 'scientist' did not exist in English until 1834.  And that leads us to another Question.

What the heck is Science, anyway? 

He's wearing a white lab coat
so he must be a scientist
In his history of Western science, Lindberg gives around eight definitions of science, one of which amounts to "whatever guys in white lab coats do."  There are others. 

To some fanboys "[natural] science" means any discovery about the natural world.   So if a paleoindian discovers pressure knapping produces better flint arrowheads than does percussion knapping, that is by-God Science!™ Of course, in this sense, I knew a lot of mechanics and engineers in manufacturing plants who qualified as 'scientists' by this usage.  Hmm.  Maybe we need a better one? 

Is the mere accumulation of facts, lore, and rules of thumb really what we mean by Science!™?  If so, there never was a Scientific Revolution, and Moderns would be precluded from sneering at medievals for not doing science.  Can't have that; so let's ask a Real Scientist.  Henri Poincare once said that a pile of facts is no more a science than a pile of bricks is a house.  (For the literal-minded, this science:house::facts:bricks thingie is what we humanists call an 'analogy.')  So we suspect there must be more to Science than fact-collection.  It isn't the facts, per se, but the way we connect the facts and make sense of them.  We make "constructions of facts" the way we make constructions of bricks.    

A Pi in the Face
Notice that pie are not square; pie are round.
Another popular conflation is to confuse Mathematics with Science.  But Mathematics and Science differ both in their methods and in their objects of study.  Science studies the abstracted properties of physical bodies while Mathematics studies the abstracted properties of ideal bodies.  Mathematics proceeds deductively from axioms, not inductively from metrical observations.  One does not prove a mathematical theorem by framing a hypothesis, running an experiment, or examining empirical evidence.  In fact, measure the circumference and diameter of any empirical circle and you will discover that their ratio is, well, rational.  There have been SF stories written around mathematical ideas, but not very many; and most Science!™ worshipers seem unversed in math.
An important corollary: until the 17th century, astronomy was a branch of mathematics, not of physics.  That is, it was a specialized sort of arithmetic (plus, in Islam and the West, geometry) whose purpose was to produce tables of numbers for use by astrologers, navigators, mapmakers.  (In China, the Dept. of Mathematics and Astronomy was part of the Bureau of Rites, which indicates its place in the scheme of things there.)  Before the invention of the telescope, there was no clear conception of the heavens as a physical place within which physical discoveries might be made.  Except for simple visuals, there was no empirical contact with the heavens.  Similarly, perspectiva was a branch of geometry, though in the West lens-grinding and spectacles made a physical connection that eventually produced the telescope.  Music was a third science that was essentially mathematical.  They were called "the exact sciences," but here science was used in the old sense of "certain knowledge," not in the modern sense. 
Thus, while we project modern categories onto the past and suppose that advances in mathematics and its specialized branches of astronomy, perspectiva, and music (acoustics) "count" as scientific advances.  But they were not advances in empirical data collection or formulation of physical theories, and it is anachronistic to regard them so.  To their practitioners, they were not "natural philosophy."

Having Our Cake and Eating It.

The three-layer cake of Science!
Science is a layer cake.

1. At the base are Facts, preferably metrical facts.  "When you can measure what you are speaking about," Lord Kelvin once warned, "and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind..."  This is something to keep in mind the next time you measure adaptation, fitness, or reproductive success to three decimals places.

To be used when making Plancked Salmon
2. Regularities among the facts are modeled in Laws, generally expressed in the privileged language of mathematics.  Examples include quotidian expressions as 2NaCl+H2SO4→Na2SO4+2HCl or s=0.5at^2 or more hifalutin cases as Maxwell's Equations or Planck's Law, etc.  Presumably, Darwin's equations belong here. 

3. Last but not least, are Physical Theories.  These are narratives or stories we tell ourselves about a body of facts such that a) the known facts "make sense," b) the laws can be deduced from the principles of the theory, and c) new facts can be predicted from the theory.  Examples are Newton's theory of universal gravitation (absolute space and time; gravity a spooky "force" acting at a distance).  This was superceded by Einstein's theory (contingent space and time; gravity an illusion created by a distortion in the field of Ricci tensors caused by the presence of mass).  This is the part of science that is falsifiable.  A new fact comes along that simply doesn't fit the theory, even after decades of trying. 

The House That Science Built

Theories are constructions of facts.  Since the Latin term for a construction is fictio, science means making fictions out of facts.  Ha ha.  But we're serious, sorta. One accomplishment of Late Modern analytic philosophy was the conclusion that science is underdetermined.  No finite number of facts, said Russell, can ever establish a theory.  Quine put it this way:
Theory can … vary though all possible observations be fixed. Physical theories can be at odds with each other and yet compatible with all possible data even in the broadest sense. In a word, they can be logically incompatible and empirically equivalent."

-- W. V. Quine, “On the Reasons for Indeterminacy of Translation”,
Journal of Philosophy, 67 (1970).
To put it another way, through any finite collection of facts one may draw an indefinite number of theories.  For quantum mechanics there are several contradictory theories: the Copenhagen theory, the many-worlds theory, Cramer's transactional theory, Bohm's standing wave, etc.  From each of them we can deduce the same laws of quantum mechanics and predict the same set of factual observations.  So, until anomalous observations are discovered, there is no empirical way of distinguishing among them.  Fanboys of empiricism, take note.
This also means that it is unlikely that Darwin's theory of natural selection is the only theory that can account for the facts of evolution.  Unfortunately, creationist woo-woo has caused evolutionary biologists to circle the wagons against the Great Unwashed and to treat any deviation from orthodoxy as heresy. So even alternative scientific explanations have a hard time.  Even Eldredge and Gould found psychological opposition to their punctuated equilibrium, and were told they were giving aid and comfort to the enemy.  No foolin'. 
Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend Me Your Engineers.

Neither is Engineering the same as Science; although as we shall see, there is an important connection.  The engineer cares only that something works reliably.  The scientist wants to know how it works.  The engineer can get by with a mathematical law that relates the curvature of a stamping tool to the gage of the metal being stamped.  The scientist will wonder what theoretical reason there is why such a relationship obtains.  For most of human history, Engineering led Science.  That is, engineers figured out how to make something work and then scientists came along to explain why.  Starting in the mid-1800s, this relationship began to reverse once 'scientist' became an occupational name.  Scientific theory began to disclose possibilities that engineers could then exploit.  It never occurs to many of the current generation that matters may ever have been different; so they retrofit Late Modernity onto earlier times.  The matter is further muddied because engineers use mathematics, too.  So engineers and scientists are often conflated, as Serbs and Croats are often conflated, simply because they speak the same language.

Scientists study nature.  Engineers study artifacts.  While artifacts do follow natural laws, it does not follow that nature follows artificial laws.  

Logic and Reason vs. Science

The final confusion is to conflate with science any endeavor which uses logic and reason (which would include theology...?  Eeeuuuw!) or which uses empirical verification (which would include my auto mechanic, maintenance techs in a factory, and the school teacher who checks the exams against the standard/correct answers).  But the sentences "Scientists use logic, reason, and verification" and "Auto mechanics use logic, reason, and verification" does not add up to "Auto mechanics are scientists." 

Basically, fanboys with a vulgar understanding of the matter, generally try to define Science!™ as "anything that feels sciency to us Late Modern Westerners."  But there is a better approach.  To study history.  After all, there was a Scientific Revolution and the Revolutionaries really did feel they were inventing something new.  So why not find out what they thought Science!™ was, or ought to be.

The Ancien Regime

Medieval scientists.  Two images are apparently contemporary.
You cannot have a scientific revolution unless there is a science to revolve.  So what was going on?  First of all the term scientia was used more broadly to refer to "the totality of rational explanations based on sensory experience."  Theology was a science, for example.  The usage survives today in political science and military science.  The theory-generated layer of science was called natural philosophy, which translates as "love of wisdom regarding nature."  Keep that in mind.  Instead of facts, they used observations.  That is, they did not often perform experiments to create artificial observations.  (The word fact comes from factum est, "that which has the property of having been made."  It is cognate with feat, and in German Tatsache = lit. deed-matter.  When Jane Austen wrote "gracious in deed as well as words," she meant "gracious in fact as well as words."  We would write "he put his money where his mouth was."  (Note to the literal-minded: this is what we call a metaphor.) 

In Ancient times, the object of science was the contemplation of the beautiful.  An [ur-]scientist stood then in relation to an artisan much as an art critic stands in relation to an artist.  That is, an artist is interested in the mixing of paints, the facrication of brushes, the kinds of strokes and colors used, and so on.  IOW, the artist is interested in how he achieves the effect.  The critic, otoh, is interested in the effect itself.  Does the painting capture the image properly, is it effective, is there a balance of colors and composition, and so forth.  This analogy meant that the ancient scientist was interested in final causes, in the beauty of nature and the way things worked together in harmony.  This carried through to all those who inherited the Greek tradition: the muslims and the Latins.  (The Byzantines, too; but that was brought to an untimely end by... the muslims and the Latins.)

Science in the Middle Ages, like that of the ancient Greeks, was directed toward the contemplation of beauty found in the workings of Nature.  This meant a focus on formal and final causes, on the essential natures of things and their place/purpose in the Grand Scheme of Things.

This also meant science was a kind of ivory tower philosophy and among the Greeks, Arabs, and Latins alike.  Whatever useful devices came about (windmills, gunpowder, mizzen masts, anaerobic curing of fatty fish, etc.) did so independently of the speculations of the philosophers.  Robert Grosseteste described an arrangement of lenses in De iride by means of which distant objects could be made to seem close.  He then remarks that the Milky Way is composed of countless individual stars.  Good eyes?  Or did Bob make a telescope, look at the Milky Way and say Kool, and that was it.  
If the lack of a denouement seems unimaginable to us, consider that in the 17th cent. telescopes quickly made their way from Europe to China, to the Ottomans, and to the Mughals and... Nothing Happened in those places
Vive le Revolution!

Frank Bacon
Rein de Cart
A different Weltanschauung was introduced by Francis Bacon (left) and Rene Descartes (right) as well as others collectively known as the Scientific Revolutionaries, which would be a kool name for a rock band.  Tell Dave Barry.  Where was I?  Oh, yes.

The new metaphysic was that henceforth Science was to be judged on its usefulness in helping man to dominate the universe.  (A somewhat grand goal, considering it was only the 17th century and nuclear warheads, ICBMs, poison gas and the like were well into the future.)

The Masculine Birth of Time

Bobby Boyle in search of Hair Club
for Men and Viagra
In the 1660s, soon after the Royal Society was founded, Robert Boyle, the chemist, composed a list of "the most pressing problems" for scientists to tackle.  (He also was firmly convinced that witches were real and needed to be eliminated.  Oddly enough, the medievals never thought of that.  Science marches on!)  Here is his list:
  • Prolongation of Life
  • Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour'd as in youth.
  • A ship to saile with all winds and a ship not to be sunk
  • The attaining of gigantick dimensions
  • the acceleration of the production of things out of seed
  • the art of flying
  • the making of armor light and extremely hard
  • the practicable and certain ways of finding longtitudes
  • the cure of diseases at a distance, or at least by transplantation.
  • potent drugs to alter or exalt imagination, waking, memory and other functions, and appease pain, procure sleep, harmless dreams etc..
  • freedom from necessity of much sleeping exemplify’d by the operation of tea and what happens in mad-men
  • the emulating of fish without engines by custome and education only
Give a man a fish and he will eat today; teach a man to fish and he will eat tomorrow.  But educate a man to emulate a fish and who knows....

The thing that strikes us most forcefully is a) the adolescent male fantasy nature of the list, hence Way Kool SF stories; and b) it focus on Making Useful (and Profitable) Products.

This shift of Science!™ from contemplation of the beauty of Nature to binding Nature and her children in chains to serve man in his domination of the universe is what distinguishes Modern science from Medieval and Ancient science.  And yes, Francis Bacon, Hume, Descartes, and others did describe the purpose of science in terms of Man clapping chains on [female] Nature.  No wonder post-modern feminists [not to mention environmentalists] get the vapors over Capitalist Science!™.  For a taste, Bacon's The Masculine Birth of Time can be found here.  But Descartes' Discourse on Method and other works paint the same picture. 

Dirac in search of Beauty
Henceforth, the mark of Science would be its usefulness.  But of the four causes - material, formal; efficient, final - only the efficient causes, which revealed how things worked, gave any promise of control over nature.  And of those efficient causes, only those that were metrical were of any interest, because only those could be measured and controlled.  Consequently, whole aspects of Nature disappeared from view.  Scientists in their grant proposals today stress the potential usefulness of their research, not the beauty of the universe to be unveiled.  (Although some, like P.A.M. Dirac and Charles Darwin, dared to speak of the beauty to be found.  Dirac once challenged a younger colleague for changing an equation because it did not fit some of the data.  The original equation was beautiful and "it is more important that the equations be beautiful than that they fit the data."  Turned out, the data was wrong and the original beautiful equation was right!)

We notice a curious thing when reading Bacon.  He did not discard final causes because they had been "scientifically" disproved.  You cannot use physics to disprove metaphysics.  Nor did he discard final causes because they weren't there.  They very obviously exist in nature.  Words like "adaptation," "pathology," "information/code" reek with final causes.  No, he dropped final causes because you can't use them to control and dominate Nature and bind her to your will.  To note that a bird's wing is "for" flying is nice; but learn "how" a bird's wing makes for flying and you may invent an airplane or something.  Bacon recognized this.  Descartes flat-out banished final [and formal] causes. 

And so Science was dragged from her ivory tower and... enslaved to the service of Engineering and Industry.  Science would henceforth be harnessed to produce useful and profitable products: airplanes, wonder drugs, television. Napalm, nerve gas, atomic bombs, pollution, and television. The Age of Capitalism and Industry was beginning and Science was to be their Handmaiden.  She may have been better off being the Handmaiden to Theology, who would at least buy her flowers now and then and maybe take her out to a nice meal. 

Government funding of science
He Who Pays the Piper
One problem with goal-directed science lies in who sets the goals.  Dwight Eisenhower noted this in his Farewell Address when he warned against the government-science complex.  (Everyone remembers the warning about the military-industrial complex, by which industry was brought under government tutelage; but no one seems to remember the second warning that he who pays the piper calls the tune.)  If science is nearly all government funded, then the government will choose the goals of science by preferentially funding those research programs aligned with government policies. 

But it need not even be the government calling the shots.  Goal-directed Science carries an inherent risk from its internal contradictions.  Namely, that if the Goal is important enough, it can eat the Science.

The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame
Too many for Darwin?
The Fighting Amish
in the Darwinian struggle for existence
We saw this in the early 20th century when the critical goal of Racial Hygiene led to eugenics programs in all the progressive countries.  Progressives assured the people that this was really-truly Science™ with a Darwinian stamp of approval.  In fact, Darwin's cousin, Galton, was an early advocate of controlling the breeding of the Lower Classes.  (Because it is always the Lower Classes whose breeding needs to be controlled.  Darwin himself worried in a letter that the Irish were outbreeding the English.)  Of course, reproductive success is supposed to be a mark of a "favored race" but c'mon, not when they're Irish.

"The most merciful thing that a large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it."  
-- Margaret Sanger, Women and the New Race (Eugenics Publ. Co., 1920, 1923)

In any case, those who opposed breeding humans as if they were horses or dogs were accused by the Racial Hygiene folks of being "anti-science."  Or at least "anti-Science!™"  They did not notice that they had segued from a perfectly ordinary scientific theory (natural selection) into a socio-political policy recommendation (eugenics).  Political polices are not scientific conclusions.  But if you really really believe in the menace of polluting our precious bodily fluids, then obviously Science must be broken to the harness.

This has nothing to do with whether the Goal is noble or crass, either.  We see it today with Save the Planet™ and Stephen Scheider's famed dictum:
On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.
--Stephen Schneider, interviewed in Discover magazine
And if he can't have both, which does he choose?  Yet he was not recommending Lying for Science!™, as is sometimes charged, but he was sensitive to the conflict between Science-to-Achieve-a-Useful-Goal and Science-to-Appreciate-the-Beauty-of-Nature.

Notes from the Untergang
So after a near-500 year run, is Modernist Science spent?  The public grows cynical as scientists accuse one another of trimming their science to fit their politics or their funding source (regardless whether they do or not; and regardless which side they take).  The stakes are high, no less than the Planet herself!  "Studies can be run" to order to prove the predetermined position.  The situation is worse in the so-called social 'sciences,' where things are measured by 'instruments' called questionnaires.  Some years back the Smithsonian put up an exhibit funded by the American Chemical Society, and the ACS received for its money an exhibit about Love Canal, Nagasaki, pollution, and sundry other effluvia for which the Left blames Science!™  (And yet they worry about creationist yahoos who want nothing more than that their religious beliefs be validated by Science!™  Creation science?  What are they thinking?)

BTW, it is at this point that fanboys of Science!™ will suddenly grasp the distinction between science and technology

Say what you will about ivory-towered natural philosophers.  They never got hit with the blame for such things as these.  
It is true that ancient and medieval focus on contemplation of beauty via finality may have impeded the production of Useful Gadgets.  But it is also true that the focus on Goals via efficient cause has likewise distorted science to the service of government and industry.  It all comes down to a single word in Descartes Discourse on Method.  He wrote "instead of" when he might have written "in addition to."  Perhaps history really is a Hegelian dialectic and after the collapse of the Modern Ages, a new science will emerge that regards the contemplative beauty of the finality of Nature alongside the profitability of efficiency in Nature.  Perhaps Science can be extracted from its entanglements so that the Post-Modern reaction against Industry does not tear down Science with it.


  1. Mr. Flynn,

    You might enjoy an article I wrote a while back for Crisis along these same lines --

  2. "the cure of diseases at a distance, or at least by transplantation." -- "Cure of diseases" I followed, but I feel like I'm missing something in the specifics....

  3. This is why I disagree with Kelvin and the common opinion that non-metrical observations are necessarily inferior. After all the very thing that is missing in modern science, the final causes, are not metrical at all. Talbott argues recently in The New Atlantis that it is in the study of organisms that science will be recovered, and I agree with him. Biologists should get rid of their physics-envy and learn to recognize that the teleology they try so hard to ignore is really there.

  4. The late Fr. Stanley Jaki, a Philosopher and Historian of Science and a Physicist defined science very carefully as, "The quantitative study of the quantitative aspects of things in motion". He also said quite a deal more than that and I highly recommend his work.

  5. Ron,

    I've read some of Fr. Jaki and I respect his work deeply. However, I still think the quantitative approach to science, while fundamental, is not enough. One can understand far more about a cell by observing its purposeful activity, for instance, than merely by quantitatively describing its parts. I don't see how biology, at least, could ever be a strictly quantitative science. Consider the statement, "The circulatory system is for circulating blood throughout the body." How would you quantify that concept? But if it's not quantifiable and therefore not scientific, just what kind of statement is it? I think there's room in science for recognition of more causes than just the efficient and more aspects than just the quantitative.

  6. This is a splendid post. You share a great amount of knowledge with some great humor, and all towards the end of wisdom. (Though I am not sure the bacon frank will lead to wisdom, at least not in a very direct manner...) You are a lucky man to have such skills. Thanks for this as well as your other various comments across the internet.

  7. Since we all fill various social roles, I don't believe Schneider was lying for science. He was merely lying like a politician, perfectly normal behaviour. Or perhaps lying like a salesman. Certainly the continual hard sell of the Green religion is one of the things that arouses my skepticism. Of course, the main cause is the demand that, for fear of the new hellfire, I swear to poverty, chastity and obedience on the altar of Holy Mother Gaia while the High Priests of the movement jet off to some tropical resort to bitch to each other about the gross over-indulgence of the lower orders. The ultimate political agenda doesn't seem to have changed all that much since the time of Racial Hygiene.
    Still, I don't think we're any worse than in the good old days. After all, Boyle's opposition to witches makes perfect sense. As all the wow/gosh/gee whiz objectives make plain, science was attempting to take over the social space of magic. So how do you deal with your opponents? Well, you can steal their knowledge, call them superstitious devil worshipping fiends and even burn them at the stake. Enough to make the modern Greens turn green with envy!!
    I must admit, though, that the English were a bit slack in this regard. This was because the main value of a charge of witchcraft was that it was a wonderful way of getting rid of silly aunt Sally before she wasted all the family fortune. The witchfinder naturally got a cut. However in England, the wicked tax man took the lot. Another potentially flourishing industry strangled by the dead hand of the Treasury.


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