Sunday, February 02, 2014

Romantic Science (or, something missing is missing)

This review by Daniel Dennett of Incomplete Nature by Terrence Deacon is interesting in itself, but one passage leaped out at me, where he attempted to delineate a split between reductionists and holists, or Enlightenment and Romantic science:
There are no entirely apt labels for the opposing sides of this gulf… Reductionism, fie! Holism, fie! …“Enlightenment” versus “Romanticism” is pretty close, as the reader can judge by considering what the following team players have in common; on the Enlightenment side: Darwin, Turing, Minsky, Dawkins, both Crick and Edelman (in spite of their antagonisms), Tibor Gánti, E. O. Wilson, Steven Weinberg, Paul and Patricia Churchland, and both Raymond Kurzweil and me (in spite of our antagonisms). On the Romantic side are arrayed Romanes and Baldwin, Kropotkin, Stephen Jay Gould, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Stuart Kauffman, Roger Penrose, Ilya Prigogine, Rupert Sheldrake, and the philosophers John Haugeland, Evan Thompson, Alicia Juarrero, John Searle, ... Jerry Fodor and Thomas Nagel.
I’m not sure Varela and Gould would appreciate being lumped in with Rupert Sheldrake, and they aren’t around to defend themselves, but never mind. I suppose another label for the gulf would be greedy mechanistic reductionists on one side, vs. those who have some qualms about it. The qualms might be similar, they probably all stem from a sense that viewing minds and organisms as machines leaves out something important – the “aching void” that Dennett refers to. But the things they choose to fill the void aren’t all the same, which is why the lumping is inappropriate.

Romantic science is a recognized thing, but that wiki page makes it seem like a purely historical phenomenon, whereas Dennett recognizes as a living force today. Most remarkably, he says that Deacon’s book has caused him to shift his views in the Romantic direction, to the degree where he is “re-examining fundamental working assumptions”. That I guess is a pretty big deal from someone as prominent as Dennett and someone so identified with straight-ahead materialism.

It reminded me of a similar-but-different dichotomy I came up with the other day, between what I think of as mainstream science, roughly the same as Dennett’s first group, that is, mechanistic and reductionist, and people like Haeckel, D’arcy Thompson, Rene Thom, Buckminster Fuller, Christopher Alexander, and Adrian Bejan whose book instigated the discussion. This group, which probably also includes Prigogine, tend to be more obsessed with form and geometry than mechanism, which gives them a somewhat marginal quality, even when they are obviously right. Their tendency to reinvent metaphysics from the ground up also tends to make them marginalized, even crankish, although their very real achievements undercuts this. I’d say this is a cousin or sub-family of Romanticsm, and driven by some of the same underlying forces. Alexander especially makes this very explicit, that his entire work in architecture, aesthetics, and metaphysics is driven by a need to make a place for what he calls “the quality of life”, which has been exiled from the mainstream mechanical universe.

I guess I need to read Deacon’s book, but my sense is that this dichotomy is never going to be solved or go away. Science by its nature takes a depersonalized (or more precisely, de-subjectivized) view of the universe. Attempts to re-graft subjectivity onto the results of science always seem forced and unsatisfactory. The work of the Romantics, valuable though it may be, has its value in design philosophies or moral philosophies or something else that is on the borders of science but is not itself science. That’s one reason it is attractive, most of us aren’t practicing scientists and are hence are more interested in the consequences of scientific results to our standing in the universe than in the science itself.