Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The uneven march of progress

Bob Seidensticker is annoyed with theists who give unhelpfully convoluted philosophical answers to empirical questions and concludes that nonscientific philosophy doesn't get anybody very far:
Alvin Plantinga argued that philosophy is relevant at the frontier of science when he said that philosophy is just thinking hard about something. By that definition, Werner Heisenberg (a physicist) was doing philosophy when he came up with his uncertainty principle, Kurt Gödel (a mathematician) was doing philosophy when he discovered his incompleteness theorems, and Alan Turing (a computer scientist) was doing philosophy when he developed the Turing Test. Maybe string theory or ideas on the multiverse are philosophy.

A broad definition of philosophy doesn’t bother me, but note that all these “philosophers” were first scientists or mathematicians. That’s why they were able to make their contributions. While a scientist can put on a philosopher’s hat and do great work, the reverse is not true...

...Lots of sites have Top Ten lists of scientific discoveries for 2013 ... We found new clues that Mars was once habitable, the Voyager 1 spacecraft left the solar system, DNA was sequenced from [a] 700,000 year old animal and 100,000 year old human remains, a meteor exploded over Russia, new gene therapies were found, life was found in a pristine Antarctic lake, and Jupiter’s Ganymede was mapped.

I couldn’t find a list of the Top Ten philosophical breakthroughs for 2013.
Cross Examined

This is a narrow point about scientifically unqualified 'philosophers putting on an imaginary lab coat and playing scientist like a child plays house.' Specifically, he objects to religious apologists muddying scientific enquiries about, say, the origin of the universe, with 'Complicated philosophical arguments' that 'simply try to paper over the glaring fact that evidence for God is negligible and that we have no justification for belief', (he calls these 'caltrop arguments').

But his criticism also opens up a far wider question. Is science the only field in which humans are making anything that we could sensibly call progress? In a very narrow sense, the answer could be 'no' - if you were to define technology as a separate discipline from science, you could also point to clear evidence of technological progress. But if by "science", you mean all the empirical disciplines of science, mathematics and technology, then there seems to be a case to be answered.

The positive side of  Seidensticker's case seems unarguable. Look at two examples of how far science and technology have come in one generation. In 1990, no astronomer in human history had ever observed a planet orbiting another star. In 1992 the first extrasolar planet (orbiting  a pulsar) was discovered. In 1995 the first planet orbiting an ordinary star (other than the sun) was discovered. Today, astronomers know of more than a thousand confirmed exoplanets, with many candidate observations awaiting confirmation and new observations taking place all the time.

Back to early '90s technology on planet earth - 'By Christmas 1990, Berners-Lee had built all the tools necessary for a working Web: the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) 0.9, the HyperText Markup Language (HTML), the first Web browser (named WorldWideWeb, which was also a Web editor), the first HTTP server software (later known as CERN httpd), the first web server (http://info.cern.ch), and the first Web pages that described the project itself.' It's obvious, even to a total non-expert, that there has been rather a lot of progress on the WWW front since then.

The apparent lack of noticeable progress in fields outside science and technology also seems to support the negative side of Seidensticker's thesis.

Starting with philosophy, never mind 'the the Top Ten philosophical breakthroughs for 2013', how many lay people could name a single philosophical breakthrough that's happened since the creation of the very first Web server, circa 1990? For that matter, how many philosophical breakthroughs of the last century could your averagely well informed non-expert name?

Science and technology can boast many well-known successes: Watson and Crick announcing the structure of DNA, the start of TV broadcasting, the discovery of penicillin and the introduction of antibiotics, the jet engine, insulin, nylon, the discovery of how our universe came into being, the Hubble space telescope, the Large Hadron Collider, the moon landings, the birth of the electronic computer and many more. People understand terms like "splitting the atom" and "rocket science" as metaphors for tasks that require intelligence, hard thinking and expertise. I'm not claiming that acceptance into the general lexicon necessarily validates a breakthrough (we still use 'mesmerise' and a lot of jargon from Freudian analysis in general speech, although Anton Mesmer was more of a charismatic stage magician than a scientist and Freud's theories were unscientific and, generally, plain wrong). But it's still an impressive list.

What have you got, philosophy? Not a lot. Two explanations come to mind:
  1. Philosphers' minds are so highly trained that the average person in the street is too stupid to understand the brain-bogglingly clever breakthroughs they've made.
  2. They just haven't made many/any.
I tend towards explanation 2. on the grounds that the general public are aware of some of the most intellectually difficult problems that the human mind has ever wrestled with. People like David Attenborough and Brian Cox pop up regularly on prime-time telly, explaining really hard stuff like evolution and the origin of the whole damn universe. If philosophy had such an exciting story of discovery to tell, where's the philosophical equivalent of Brian Cox, getting all enthusiastic, awe-struck and wistful about the amazing things philosophers have discovered in the the last few years in that new blockbuster series, Wonders of Philosophy? Alain de Botton, lovely man though he is, doesn't quite cut it in the astonishing discoveries stakes.

And how about progress in the arts? The arts certainly have a higher public profile than philosophy - who hasn't heard of Picasso, Andy Worhol, George Gershwin, Georgia O'Keeffe, The Beatles, Lady Gaga, Orson Welles, J K Rowling, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee or Brian Eno? But how far has art itself "progressed"? Here's the blurb for an exhibition of Ice Age art:
Discover masterpieces from the last Ice Age drawn from across Europe in this groundbreaking show. Created by artists with modern minds like our own, this is a unique opportunity to see the world's oldest known sculptures, drawings and portraits.

These exceptional pieces will be presented alongside modern works by Henry Moore, Mondrian and Matisse, illustrating the fundamental human desire to communicate and make art as a way of understanding ourselves and our place in the world.

Ice Age art was created between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago and many of the pieces are made of mammoth ivory and reindeer antler. They show skilful, practised artists experimenting with perspectives, scale, volumes, light and movement, as well as seeking knowledge through imagination, abstraction and illusion.

One of the most beautiful pieces in the exhibition is a 23,000-year-old sculpture of an abstract figure from Lespugue, France. Picasso was fascinated with this figure and it influenced his 1930s sculptural works.

Although an astonishing amount of time divides us from these Ice Age artists, such evocative pieces show that creativity and expression have remained remarkably similar across thousands of years.
Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind, The British Museum, 2013.

There are great artists now and there were great artists in prehistory. It's by no means clear that the work of modern visual artists is 'better' in any meaningful way than that of their paleolithic ancestors. You might argue that humans have developed many different techniques and forms of art in the intervening millennia, both in the visual arts and in other domains of artistic expression. But stop to think about what has changed. While 'creativity and expression have remained remarkably similar across thousands of years', science and technology haven't, and advances in these empirical disciplines often seem to have been the drivers of artistic progress. For example:
  • abstract geometrical decoration in Islamic art - although originally inspired by a perceived religious prohibition of idolatry, these new forms were enabled by mathematical knowledge
  • the move towards abstraction and conceptualism in Twentieth Century Western art, driven at least in part by the widespread availability of the camera, which usurped the unique ability of the representative artist to create a convincing facsimile of nature
  • and while we're on the subject of photography, it's an art form that wouldn't exist without the technology coming first
  • ditto cinematography and video games (if you think the latter comes under the ambit of "art" - if not, why not?)
  • humans have had music and musicians since the stone age - what they lacked back then wasn't artistry, but the people who later invented fiddles, guitars, harpsichords, pianos, pipe organs, trombones, sitars, saxophones, synthesisers and musical notation
  • and talking of notation, information technology started with accounting symbols pressed into wet clay, which eventually developed into written language, the medium that transformed the oral storytelling tradition into the various forms of the thing we now call literature
And so on. In short, perhaps the "progress" part of "artistic progress" is down to science and technology, rather than to humans' native artistic drives and talents, which may have existed, virtually unchanged, since the stone age.

So, maybe "science", in its broadest sense is demonstrably progressing, while philosophy and the arts aren't. Is the human race making measurable progress in any field other than the empirical disciplines? I can think of one field where there seems to have been a measurable degree of progress - politics and society:
People sometimes do not realize how total has been the normative triumph of some of the ideas typically associated with democracy, even if one thinks that democracy itself has not succeeded quite as spectacularly. Take, for instance, the norm that rulers of states should be selected through some process that involves voting by all adults in society (I’m being deliberately vague here) rather than, say, inheriting their position by succeeding their fathers. In 1788 there were only a couple of countries in the world that could even claim to publicly recognize something remotely like this norm. Most people could not vote, and voting was not generally recognized as something that needed to happen before rulers could rule; rulers could and did claim to have authority to rule on other grounds. Norms of hereditary selection structured the symbolic universe in which political competition took place, and defined its ultimate boundaries for most people (at least those who lived in state spaces). Yet by 2008 there were only four or five countries in the world that did not publicly acknowledge universal voting rights. 
Even acknowledging the existence of other, less encouraging, developments, that's pretty impressive. We can actually pick out a few identifiable markers of progress (assuming that what "progressives" think of as progress is progress): the ending of apartheid in south Africa and of racial segregation in the southern sates of the USA, the reversal of a lot of anti-gay legal discrimination across most of the developed world a continuation in the general decline in levels of violence identified by Steven Pinker (OK, this one is contested, but as one critic put it, Pinker's vocal critics, like John Gray have provided 'reasons to doubt Pinker’s explanation of the decline of violence is correct, however he has not provided reasons to doubt that violence is declining'),

And this progress seems to have some public recognition - people who couldn't name a contemporary philosopher would recognise the names of Nelson Mandela, Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, or Peter Tatchell.

Is this another separate domain of human progress, or is it also driven, in a more subtle way, by the relentless march of science and technology?

I'm not sure that there's always a direct link between scientific progress and social progress, but people have proposed all such links. For example, the idea that slave societies don't develop technology because they've already got slaves to do the work. I've heard it argued that the ancient Greeks, who invented the steam engine and astronomical computer could have had their own industrial revolution if only they hadn't been so addicted to enslaving people. A steampunk late classical world would make a good backdrop to an alt-history SF novel (I'm certain it already has, although I've not read one), but this thesis rather glosses over the coercive aspects of the actual Industrial Revolution, (the use of enclosure and eviction to destroy the self-sufficiency of the lower orders to create a class of biddable proletarian wage-slaves, dependent on selling their labour).

You could, more plausibly point to the defeat of the inefficient slave states of the American South by the industrialised North in the Civil War.

But then again, Nazi Germany wasn't known for its tolerance or liberalism, yet it had an atomic weapons programme, pioneered radar, jet engines and rocket propulsion - indeed the man responsible for designing slave-labour-built vengeance weapons for Hitler went on to head the team that put humans on the moon, while his Soviet rival in the space race, Sergei Korolev, was no product of a tolerant, enlightened society, but a former inmate of Stalin's gulags, only reprieved because his talents were needed for the war effort.

There's even the Orson Welles' "cuckoo clock" argument that, far from going hand in hand with technical progress, political progress - peace, justice, equity and so on - actually retards it:
You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
The Third Man

Does social and political progress exist as a thing apart from scientific and technical progress? Ultimately it's hard to measure things like justice and an equitable distribution of power, so I wouldn't say this is a sure thing. But I like to think so.