Ironic science, pragmatism, and the “is best viewed as” argument

by James Thorniley

I’ve read a couple of interesting books recently, one was “The End of Science” by John Horgan, and the other was “Radical Embodied Cognitive Science” by Anthony Chemero. Horgan’s theme was the question of whether the fundamentals of science are now so solid that before long nothing genuinely “new” will be left to find, and science will be reduced to either obsolescence, or puzzle-solving type application of existing theories to particular problems. The only other type of science that still exists, according to Horgan, is “ironic” science. A kind of semi-postmodern project to explain or describe what we already know in more “beautiful” or appealing forms, but which never produces hypotheses that are empirically testable, and for this reason, don’t actually advance knowledge. Horgan is distinctly dismissive of this kind of science, as being not “proper” science (he deliberately compares it to postmodern literary criticism, which he seems to have particular contempt for, having once been a student of it himself). Chemero would be, I’m sure, classified by Horgan as an ironic scientist. I don’t think Chemero would be able to deny that in a sense, his philosophy is empirically untestable, but he certainly argues that it is pragmatic in the sense of being useful to scientists engaged in solving real world problems.

Horgan seems to be particularly infuriated by string theorist Edward Witten. String theory, by the sounds of things, is the ultimate ironic science. The purpose of string theory is to unify Einstein’s general relativity with quantum mechanics, which it does by positing the existence of new underlying physical laws. The new laws only really exist in the mathematical world, and don’t add anything to quantum mechanics and relativity that empirical scientists could ever hope to find. Since most physicists are quite happy to use the quantum mechanical and/or relativistic foundations with no obvious loss of modelling capability, string theory seems to be in a sense pointless. The likes of Witten are only intrigued by it because they are actually mathematicians more than physicists, and in the mathematical domain it does actually represent a significant body of new findings. (Incidentally, I know nothing about string theory, I’m just summarising Horgan’s argument).

I think the “ironic” label can easily be applied to authors like Chemero (and there are many others who make similar arguments). Chemero’s position centres around an apparent dichotomy between viewing cognitive systems as computers and viewing them as “dynamical systems” (the latter being the “radical embodied” stance). From the computationalist viewpoint, our brains are like computers than act on symbols that “represent” meaningful properties of the world we live in – the states of neurons encode such representations, and the responses from other neurons perform manipulations, computations, and eventually encode an output state (such as motor activation). In the radical embodied paradigm, our brains are simply part of a larger physical system comprised of the brain itself, its body, and the environment it finds itself in. In much the same way as a tennis ball traces a trajectory in space as it is hit by rackets and falls at some point to earth, our neurons (as a collective) are simply tracing out a trajectory though the space of all their possible activation states in accordance with physical laws (obviously, brains obey much more complex trajectories than something passive like a ball, but the modelling approach is essentially the same).

It’s worth mentioning that there is in fact a “middle ground” which Chemero calls (non-radical) embodied cognition, which considers the role of the body in cognition as important but does not absolutely refuse to accept the existence of any type of computational symbol manipulation.

A problem for people like Chemero is that they are often interpreted as trying to argue that “the brain is a dynamical system”. Such a statement would be trivial almost to the point of absurdity – a dynamical system is really just a model, and the dynamical systems modelling approach can be applied to all sorts of physical systems. Stating that the brain “is” a dynamical system is nothing more than saying that the brain is made of physical-stuff, a viewpoint with which arch computationalists would surely agree.

To really drive the point home, not only is it trivial that a brain is a dynamical system, it is also trivially true that any computer (such as the one you are reading this on) is a dynamical system, if that is how you choose to view it.

I would also argue that it’s pretty much just as valid for any dynamical system to be viewed as a computer, if that’s what you want to do. So in exactly the same way, the statement “the brain is a computer” is again true, but trivially so.

Since both statements are obviously true, debating which one is more correct seems like a waste of time, and hence a candidate for the “ironic” science label. However, the real crux of Chemero’s argument is not that the brain “is” a dynamical system, but that it is “best viewed as” a dynamical system. A simple experiment to do is to hold out your arms so that your forearms are pointed upwards, bent at the elbow, then wave your forearms side to side as if they were windscreen wipers (both left at the same time then both right at the same time). Try and do this faster and faster and you should find that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep your arms in sync in the windscreen wiper-way – in fact, they are likely to sync up the opposite way, with both pointing inwards together then pointing outwards together. This phenomenon has been experimentally observed in a lot of similar scenarios and explained using a dynamical systems model. Chemero’s point is that when you think of the behaviour as the result of a dynamical system, it’s actually quite easily to model it and thus gain some understanding of how your brain works. If you wanted to take a computational approach, where you insist that the brain must be working on some internal representation of the movement of your arms, it actually seems quite convoluted and unnecessarily difficult to describe this phenomenon in any meaningful detail.

This is an “is best viewed as” argument, and it’s inherently pragmatic – the whole point is that thinking of the brain in a different way is supposed to make real, empirical science easier to do. However, the “is best viewed as” argument is still ironic in the sense that it, itself, is completely untestable. Clearly whether something “is best viewed as” can’t be measured using scientific instruments, it’s a value judgement as to what is the most productive approach for scientists.

So really, what I wanted to say, is that “ironic” science is not really as wasteful as Horgan makes out. Perhaps string theory goes to extremes in terms of mathematical obfuscation and is really too separated from reality. However, science that involves making an “is best viewed as” argument does, at least potentially, have a lot of value. I also think that (perhaps) you could even say that the things that Horgan clearly does view as genuine scientific contributions are actually themselves ironic “is best viewed as” arguements. General relativity, for example, views gravity as a property of a four dimensional “spacetime”, not because the existence of spacetime can be empirically tested, but because doing so generates models of physical systems which can be tested understood (at least by people sufficiently familiar with the theory), and thus it is pragmatically useful.

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One Comment to “Ironic science, pragmatism, and the “is best viewed as” argument”

  1. Reading some Horgan stuff, I find him quite irritating. I can’t be bothered to write an essay on the subject, but ughghg. But basically I don’t think he would agree with “I also think that (perhaps) you could even say that the things that Horgan clearly does view as genuine scientific contributions are actually themselves ironic “is best viewed as” arguments”, when he should.

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