The World of the Spiral Arm
|Buy early and often|
The planets of the Periphery and the Central Worlds likewise have a black-box technology. They know which Xs produce which Ys. They just have no idea how or why. Ancient gods like Einstein have bestowed these things on them and they work. What more do they need?
But how did matters come to such a pass?
The Modern Ages were the Age of Science. By this, we mean something very particular, and nor merely the study of nature. For one thing, people in other ages and in other civilizations studied nature. Some of them. Some of the time. But there was a Modern way of doing science distinct from the ancient and medieval ways -- and from the post-modern way we are entering.
|The Great Pyramid of Geeks|
What Science is NotHenri Poincare famously said that just as a house is not simply a pile of bricks, science is not simply a pile of facts. People in all cultures have discovered facts and collected curiosities. But this sort of serendipitous ingathering is not science-with-a-capital-S. One may gather pragmatically a great many facts without forming any coherent world picture.
Nor is science the formulation of rules of thumb. These are haphazard, fortuitous, traditional, the sort of lore that tinkerers and craftsmen develop informally.
Physical TheoryWhile scientists must gather facts and really ought to formulate laws (in mathematical terms, if possible), what distinguished Modern Science was the use of physical theory. These are quasi-metaphysical narratives that "make sense" out of a body of facts, and from which the laws can be deduced and the facts predicted. Facts do not explain themselves, and have meaning only in the light of a theory.
|The demonstrative regress: a posteriori induction from|
sensible singulars to intellectual universals; then a priori
deduction from the universals back to the singulars.
ASIDE: We can see immediately what is unsatisfying about evolutionary just-so stories. They employ only the a priori half of the loop.
This is also what is wrong with ancient Greek "science." They never let the quiae get in the way of a really cool propter quid. Or they wouldn't have if they had spoken Latin instead of Greek. But the ancient Greeks had Theories, but no Facts. At least not in the modern sense of deliberate and measured observations.
(Fact, from factum est: "that which has the property of having been accomplished." In German: Tatsache: lit. "deed-matter." Fact is cognate with "feat." Rather than passively listening to nature, the moderns went out and interrogated her with deliberate data collection and experiment. Facts are made, not found.)
Aristarchus did not suggest a heliocentric earth because of a close study of the facts of planetary motions, but because fire was nobler than earth and the center was a nobler position than the periphery. Ergo... There are many names for that kind of reasoning, but "scientific" is not one of them. Democritus' "atoms" were an assumption, not a conclusion based on or confirmed by observable facts. Lucky guesses are not science, either. Otherwise, we would credit Jonathan Swift with the discovery of the Martian moons.
The Chinese had facts without theories; the Greeks had theories without facts. If you don't have both a posteriori and a priori, you don't have your science yet.
|Billy Ockham, OFM|
Billy Ockham Takes a ShaveOckham's Razor states "Don't have too many terms in your models, or else you won't understand your own models." It was not that the simplest explanation is more likely to be true, as some think. Bill specifically said that the Real World™ could be as complicated as God willed. It was our models of the world that had to be simple. Don't explain Y with X1, X2, and X3 when X1 and X2 will do nicely. (But don't neglect X3 when there is too big a gap between the model and the world. Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.)
(*) razor. The medieval used a straight razor to scrape the ink off the surface of a parchment so that it could be used again. Hence, eraser. Ockham famously "erased" several terms from what he called the "old way" of modeling cognition to create the "modern way."
The Collapse of Modern ScienceThere are a number of markers of this collapse. Quantum mechanics and general relativity stomped all over the mechanistic Newtonian universe of absolute space. The emergence of Government as the primary funder of scientific research compromised the independence of science, as Eisenhower warned it would in his Farewell Address. The perverse incentives inherent in the Baconian-Cartesian model of science elevated goals (Racial Hygiene, Save the Planet™, New Product, etc.) above the actual science. The feminist-environmentalist critique took some of the bloom off the rose and the Modern mythos of “progress, science, and industry” gave way to a Postmodern mythos of oppression and pollution. The old slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry” began to seem a sick joke. (cf. the 1989 Smithsonian exhibit called “Science in American Life," which presented American science as a series of moral debacles and environmental catastrophes: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Silent Spring, Love Canal, Three Mile Island, and the explosion of the space shuttle. (Christina Hoff Sommers, “The Flight from Science and Reason," Wall Street Journal, 7/10/95)
Even in Science Fiction, dystopias began to replace the Scientist-Heroes of the 1940s and 50s. Enrollment in science, math, and engineering courses began to plummet. Everyone wants to be America's Next Top Model, not her Next Top Organic Chemist.
About "40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree." (60 percent if pre-med students are included.) Some universities are trying to teach science and engineering without so much math. Wonder how that will work out. ("Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It's Just So Darn Hard)" New York Times, Nov. 4, 2011)
These are mostly sociological factors. But now add one more: There's too much damn data.
Après Moi le Déluge de DonnéesIn "To Know, but Not Understand" an article in The Atlantic excerpted from a forthcoming book, Too Big To Know, David Weinberger points to the explosion of data in the sciences.
In 1963, Bernard K. Forscher of the Mayo Clinic complained in a now famous letter printed in the prestigious journal Science that scientists were generating too many facts. Titled "Chaos in the Brickyard," the letter warned that the new generation of scientists was too busy churning out bricks -- facts -- without regard to how they go together. Brickmaking, Forscher feared, had become an end in itself. "And so it happened that the land became flooded with bricks. ... It became difficult to find the proper bricks for a task because one had to hunt among so many. ... It became difficult to complete a useful edifice because, as soon as the foundations were discernible, they were buried under an avalanche of random bricks."
If science looked like a chaotic brickyard in 1963, Dr. Forscher would have sat down and wailed if he were shown the Global Biodiversity Information Facility at GBIF.org. Over the past few years, GBIF has collected thousands of collections of fact-bricks about the distribution of life over our planet, from the bacteria collection of the Polish National Institute of Public Health to the Weddell Seal Census of the Vestfold Hills of Antarctica. GBIF.org is designed to be just the sort of brickyard Dr. Forscher deplored -- information presented without hypothesis, theory, or edifice -- except far larger because the good doctor could not have foreseen the networking of brickyards.
|What's in it? Schrödinger's cat|
Among other things, the low expense of storing data now means that crappy data gets saved along with the good. The tares are gathered up along with the wheat. The flip side is the high cost of editing such massive amounts of data, so much of the editing and adjusting is done by automated algorithms, facilitated by computational speeds that make the data easier to share. We need no longer think about the data. It's all numbers in a data base.
All this has, as Weinberger says, "led us to science that sometimes is too rich and complex for reduction into theories. As science has gotten too big to know, we've adopted different ideas about what it means to know at all." Systems biology, he says, simply was not possible in the Age of Books. (And recall that the Modern Ages were also the Age of the Book. And stop by Borders to see how well that's going.)
Looks like Billy Ockham called it right, and the scientific method is headed for the ash-heap of history. Or at least the Modern scientific method. Welcome to Postmodern Science. The quasi-Ming China facts-without-theory world of science-less technology that permeates the Spiral Arm in the January Dancer and its sequels.
Models this complex -- whether of cellular biology, the weather, the economy, even highway traffic -- often fail us, because the world is more complex than our models can capture. But sometimes they can predict accurately how the system will behave.
The complexity of the world
Weinberger goes on to show that he may have heard of the Demonstrative Regress:
This marks quite a turn in science's path. For Sir Francis Bacon 400 years ago, for Darwin 150 years ago, for Bernard Forscher 50 years ago, the aim of science was to construct theories that are both supported by and explain the facts. Facts are about particular things, whereas knowledge (it was thought) should be of universals.Except he gets ahead of himself. The distinction might be between knowledge and understanding. You can know the facts; but you cannot understand them. A theory, you can understand.
We therefore stared at tables of numbers until their simple patterns became obvious to us. Johannes Kepler examined the star charts carefully constructed by his boss, Tycho Brahe, until he realized in 1605 that if the planets orbit the Sun in ellipses rather than perfect circles, it all makes simple sense. Three hundred fifty years later, James Watson and Francis Crick stared at x-rays of DNA until they realized that if the molecule were a double helix, the data about the distances among its atoms made simple sense. With these discoveries, the data went from being confoundingly random to revealing an order that we understand: Oh, the orbits are elliptical! Oh, the molecule is a double helix!But now, there is just too much data to stare at, and there never comes the moment of Oh! Perhaps there always was too much data -- but we just didn't have it all; and that was why one theories kept getting falsified. But maybe, too, we needed the incremental theories precisely because things were "too big to know."
|Too much data?|
That is, a bunch of inputs -- X1, X2, ..., Xn -- are put into the black box and out comes one or more formulae: Yi = g(F1, F2, ..., Fk). But a factor Fj might not represent any of the various X1, X2, ..., Xn. The equations "work," just like old rules of thumb, but provide no understanding of the process.
when Sir Francis Bacon said that knowledge of the world should be grounded in carefully verified facts about the world, he wasn't just giving us a new method to achieve old-fashioned knowledge. He was redefining knowledge as theories that are grounded in facts. The Age of the Net is bringing about a redefinition at the same scale. Scientific knowledge is taking on properties of its new medium, becoming like the network in which it lives.Let's not give Frankie Bacon too much credit; but that story is part of the Origin Myth of the Modern Ages. Weinberger is telling us that the Modern Ages are indeed over and along with the Book, the School, Industry, Europe, and the rest, the Modern way of doing science is as dead as the Medieval way. Well, it had a good run.
That doesn't mean no one will study nature any more. It does mean that they won't do so in the same way. Compare reading. The end of the Age of the Book does not mean no one will read. It means they will not read in the same way. The manner in which readers grasped the contents of a scroll differed from the way their successors grasped the contents of a manuscript codex, a printed book, or a computer screen (back to scrolling?) The expectation of an understandable physical theory may fade, to be replaced with direct "mechanical" grappling with the forest of facts with no expectation that they "make sense." That is the world of the Spiral Arm series.
|God ordering the world "by number,|
weight and measure"
It would seem that the opposite is true. Having abandoned the belief, we are about to abandon the conviction.
So, What Next?
Well, let's see. We're back to black-box rules of thumb. People will take the outputs of the oracle-computers without understanding what they really mean, and apply them successfully or not. But causal principles that are not known ("manifest") are hidden ("occult"). And the attempt to manipulate physical matter by use of occult powers was called "magic."
It's not just that the technological fruits of the advanced science will seem to be mirabilia ("marvels," "miracles") it's that the scientist-priests themselves will not understand the principles behind them, either. So perhaps Arthur C. Clarke was far more right than he knew when he said that a sufficiently advanced science would be indistinguishable from magic.
edited 15 Jan for length, typos, and excessive digression, even for me.