19 February, 2015

Building with Other People’s Bricks

Or References, References, References!

Though an academic, I am not a great fan of references.

Indeed, readers of my writings will notice an almost complete absence of these links to other people’s prior work, which may be surprising as such are always considered absolutely essential in the academic world. And, the arguments for these seem to be totally sound: credit where credit is due, a useful path to detailed relevant prior works, and many others.

But, I still wont do it, and the question has to be, “Why?” It is certainly not because I don’t gain from the contributions of others, so why should I be so adamant about it?

It is to do with one's purposes in doing research and publishing the results. In a perfect world where the philosophical ground was totally sound, and, therefore, needed no correcting, such a method would be absolutely correct. But, that isn’t our world, and never has been.

The main problem we face is in our unavoidable, intellectual inheritance – the paradigms and the principles, and even the “banker” facts, entities and methods that are considered to be both necessary and available, are actually never of that assumed, ideal kind. Indeed, clear problems could be, and indeed have been, unaddressed for centuries in the modern world, and for tens of millennia at earlier times in Mankind’s short history. We are, at the same time, informed, and yet also manacled, by our previous understandings.

Now, if all this is true, think what it will mean if we accept the status quo generally, and are only rearranging, or updating, a few of these "bricks". We are very unlikely to come upon the major anomalies in our current position and then attempt a complete overhaul of our assumed bases.

In such head-down work, we are unlikely to be challenging anything crucial: we will have accepted the general stance of our colleagues and be arguing over fairly trivial additions, changes or extensions to that view. But, in saying that I don’t mean they are a waste of time, just that they will never challenge the major cracks in the foundations of our understanding.

I have, in several different disciplines chased the more accepting tasks, but they are always about “small ponds”, and it is the vast oceans that must, in the end, be tackled.

So, what delivers with new knowledge or discoveries in fundamentals?

The primary task must, first, be to always relate new things to the prevailing consensus, in an attempt to integrate it meaningfully. And, in so doing, the purpose was surely to integrate them intrinsically into that foundation to extend and strengthen it in both overall coherence and comprehensiveness.

Yet, is that always a part of most published contributions?

No, it isn’t! Indeed, I was often perplexed by the abysmal standard of so may introductions and conclusions bracketing the books of quite famous scientists (Werner Heisenberg comes immediately to mind, but it is, to be honest, a truly endemic fault).

But, surely that aspect must be imperative? For new contributions to fit together to deliver more than the sum of the individual parts, must be the objective? And, I consider that in what I publish, that has to be my major objective.

Now, trawling through many different sequences of prior contributions, none of which are addressing such imperatives, will certainly not help in that endeavour. Not knowing where each contribution is situated in a clear and overt standpoint, will only deal in un-positioned bits-and-pieces, without overt ground. I used to do this and frankly got nowhere in establishing where all the diverse contributions were grounded. In the end, it became clear that they were grounded in each other, but without the implicit, common ground being revealed. Confronted with anomalies a researcher would NOT be able to find the causes in such contributions: as their sources would always be too particular and head-down to reveal their bases.

So, with such intentions, I have to have my own systems for dealing with new contributions. What I read about only survives if it fits with what has already been turned into a coherent and comprehensive stance, which I or others have been able to muster and reveal.

But, there is also a second and equally important method.

It is one, which is aware of the anomalies present in current theories, and is constantly on the lookout for discoveries that may be appropriate to address these failures. With such a pair of criteria, you could never accuse this scientist of being head-down; he is decidedly head-up!

In saying all this, I must emphasize that this approach is not an example of old theories rejecting all that is new. In a sense that is closer to the truth about the usually employed methods, where defence of your own past contributions can swamp all other considerations. No, this alternative approach is very open to the “New”, because it has a constantly referred to agenda of problems-to-be-solved being applied to all new contributions.

Science, at its best, celebrates new features, which advance the overall understandings of Reality. So, coming across something new the two sets of criteria outlined above, must be applied.

First, does it fill a prior “gaping hole” in our current understanding, and second, does it fit into the already coherent system of ideas.

So, when reading the accounts of new contributions, it is in addressing these two aspects, and hence is never trivial. This is because Mankind simply cannot alight directly upon Absolute Truth. Indeed, the very imperative of fitting in with other prior ideas that inevitably imposes a kind of “fitting approach”.

We simplify and idealise the knowledge we gain from Reality to “make-it-fit” and hence we cannot use past knowledge as the supreme authority in assessing the new ideas. As well as demanding coherence, we must also check both the new and the old against the only final arbiter for a scientist – and that has to be Reality-as-is!

So, two very different sets of criteria are involved in assessing and interpreting new discoveries, and they can pull in opposite directions. Indeed, more often than not they do precisely that, and for very good reasons too.

Hegel in his Thinking about Thought studies realised that our quite understandable urge to fit things together, always necessitated a “bit of tailoring”, and what we achieved in that process not only delivered at least partly useable results, but also inevitably distorted things in some way. In other words, all abstractions are necessarily flawed, and the errors will come out further along the paths of attempted explanations.

It is why we must never be satisfied with merely formal equations, and always go on to explaining things too.

Indeed, he predicted that the mistakes would reveal themselves in a remarkable way.

What would emerge from any agreed set of assumptions and principles would, at some stage, be a pair of seemingly totally contradictory concepts – and, surprisingly, they would both be based upon the very same premises.

Hegel called these Dichotomous Pairs. And, there were two very different ways to handle them; the thinker could simply be a pragmatist, and use each where it fitted best, is one of them.

This eventually split Reality into two subsequent paths of explanation, and if not tackled to resolve the contradictory pair, would create new categories, or even, ultimately, separate Subjects of study – like Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics etc. etc. Keeping studies within such coherent limits meant that explanations could proceed without ever transcending the contradictions.

So, if this is a mistake, what did Hegel offer as a more fruitful alternative?

Surprisingly, he did not suggest what most people attempt to do in such circumstances, which amounts to “finding out” which of the pair is irrefutable “true”, and which is, therefore, entirely false. Hegel realised that such a task was impossible and would not advance the situation one iota. For, in a sense, they were both false, so trying to give one or the other precedence would not suffice. He revealed that such Dichotomous Pairs gave us the chance to reassess the underlying bases for both. The task became to reveal exactly what the common bases for the Pair actually were. It would be hidden in the “taken-for-granted” premises on which the used lines of reasoning were based.

And, perhaps even more surprisingly, it was very often the most basic principles involved, which were the problem. To transcend such a dichotomy meant that those premises must be exposed, criticised and replaced.

Now, such a task would by no means be easy, and in spite of the discovery being, even in Hegel’s day, 2,300 years old from its first recognition (see Zeno of Elea’s Paradoxes), Mankind had not arrived at Hegel’s proffered solution. They had always taken the pragmatic routes described above, and managed to achieve a great deal without tackling this crucial problem. Even after Hegel, 200 years ago, only one group, in that extended period, not only carried on with his methodology, but also switched their overall stance from Idealism (Hegel’s position) to Materialism (which at that time was the stance of almost all scientists). But, that group, who were initially dedicated students of Hegel, were not accepted by the scientific community of that time, primarily because the new thinkers were extremely active in revolutionary circles, and because the Materialism the scientists based themselves on was very different from that of the new group.

The stance of literally all the then current scientists was embodied in the ideas expressed by the French scientist Laplace, which defined a particular form of Materialism – later to be entitled Mechanical Materialism. And, they were more than happy with their current Laplacian stance.

The constant re-appraisal of all premises certainly did not suit them! Once set upon a keen and stimulating ride, they did not want to be always analysing critically what they were doing. They wanted to get places, fast! And, even with their current stance, they still had a whole world of things to investigate by their, then well-established, methods.

So, though the obvious alliance should have been between the new Dialectical Materialists and the and the Mechanical Materialist scientists, that crucial cooperation never occurred. And, to this day, the task is still awaiting completion.

Now, that necessarily extended diversion above had to be made clear, to put the problems of the path towards Truth into some meaningful perspective.

Clearly, there are assumptions and principles (not to mention incorrectly devised and idealised entities) behind everything, and the problem of publishers of research papers becomes almost insurmountable! How can a wide variety of papers be published, which are certain, in some respects at least, to disagree with each other, without that being evident overtly in the individual contributions?

The publishers had to, on the one hand, judge whether the papers should be included or rejected, and on the other, had to, somehow, ensure that the readers of those contributions would be able to find these things, for themselves, by tracing back through the referenced influences of the writers involved. Clearly, sufficient references were the chosen method of ensuring that such a search would be possible – or so the publishers believed!

Nevertheless, that imposed provision wasn’t sufficient! And, the number of academic journals increased to limit the common premises to particular areas, so then, with some sort of consensus within the potential contributors to a given Journal, such worries could be shelved (to an extent!)

Indeed, in research, some years ago, into these references in Journals, it became clear that defined groups arose, which formed “common reference sets”, and, in fact, limited the possibilities of finding new paths via the absolute necessity of agreeing to their group consensus. Indeed, a phenomenon arose of building the new entirely with “other people’s flawed bricks”

And, this meant that, in these already existing groups of researchers, the underlying premises would not be evident, not only in the initially encountered paper, but also in the majority, if not the complete set, of the references quoted.

The new findings of a researcher, which did not conform to these common set of premises, would not be likely to be included, and if it was, the stance would have to be discerned by a study of the references, or alternatively, be included by the writer in his paper.

It is, of course, the latter policy, which the writer of this paper always follows. It is the writer’s job, not only to proffer new evidence, but also to establish the ground for it, if it in any significant way, differs from the usual consensus.

It is what this writer is doing now!


In this saga of academic references, some mention has to be made of the so-called “Scientific Reporters”, who regularly inhabit scientific magazines.

These people do not seem to do any science themselves, but instead (somewhat like theatre critics) trawl around the current offerings in academic journals, to reveal the alternatives being proposed to current problems. And, with such “commentators”, the whole thing is put together entirely with “other peoples bricks”. And, therefore, like Lego, various different “possible” structures are (very briefly) defined.

No real conclusions are ever made, and they are usually terminated by leaving any final judgements to be delivered by future, well-defined experiments for posterity to construct.

It’s a nice job, if you can get it, but it doesn’t usually solve much, does it?

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