26 October, 2015

Man & Reality III


Let us attempt to define the philosophical position that currently dominates the widespread everyday attitude to Science and its role in society, not only in the technology dealt with above but in Science itself.

Elsewhere, I have established that “Technology rules OK”, and is often mis-named “Science”! Its productions abound! From space rockets to television, mobile phones to digital cameras, and washing machines to computers – everywhere these products seem to define the main thrust of society. But, what exactly is Technology? How does it relate to Science, and how have its worship, and its effect on the general world view developed to its present state? The essence to these questions must be at least started with the explanation of the relationship between Science & Technology.

It is clear that Science is about “Why?”, while Technology is about “How?”

Early in their development these two things had a different relationship to that they hold today. Long ago as soon as some “useful” thing or process was discovered, it was immediately “put to use” without any real explanation. But there was a danger in this lack of a meaningful explanation. The process was therefore all the more difficult to remember and pass on to the next generation, because it couldn’t be easily explained. So there developed a sort of “apology” for an explanation which often took the form of a quasi-religious or magical ritual, with associated mumbo-jumbo. There is little doubt that such closed shop procedures were in fact quite effective. Without understanding, practitioners were still able to maintain and pass on their powerful techniques. So, it seems that Technology preceded Science but was maintained by the mystical garb of myth. So, obviously, someone, somewhere actually, by chance or design, actually discovered the useful kernel that was later entrenched in the above performances, and indeed, this has to be seen as a kind of “embryo Science”, but any clear essential explanation was at this point absent. The process had mostly involved intelligent observation and realisation rather than any structured scientific activity.

So, from early in the history of modern man, the “practical” use of discoveries was established.

Now this paper is not meant as a history, especially as I am in no position to give chapter and verse on the detailed processes and development of this nascent Science. That is a task for someone better qualified than I in objectively interpreting and delivering History. But, if we are to understand the position as it stands today, we must at least give some time to seeing how that grew from its ground in man’s past. By the time of the Greeks, the situation had become noticeably more rich and complex. The beginnings of detailed observation, Mathematics, Logic and Philosophy were by then established as study-able categories, and the earliest “explanations” (in the modern scientific sense) were attempted. This was the start of true Science, but we would be very hard put to recognise it as such. With basic “elements” such as Earth, Fire, Water and Air, we find it hard to give any credence to it as what we would call explanation, but in an important sense we would be mistaken. It was an intelligent attempt. Its explanations were not stupid AND contained morsels of the truth. Our modern way of putting this would be to say that these concoctions STILL contained some objective content, even though they were wrapped up in mistaken definitions and understandings. None-the-less, for the first time it did put explanation “on the agenda” as a worthwhile undertaking.

By the time of the Industrial Revolution, all sides of the study and use of aspects of Nature had exploded into myriads of lines of development, and new forms of Abstraction had led to the birth of true Mathematics, as well as a range of separate sciences, and sophisticated technological methods of producing things for use. Though the Giants of Culture at this time were often “renaissance men” in that they participated in everything, the various subjects were becoming separately defined, and while Engineers built roads and locomotives, ships and bridges, Scientists attempted to get to the heart of things and explain WHY things performed as they did. By the time of Edison, the inventor/technologist was becoming separated from the pure investigating scientist in that his overriding question was not WHY? But HOW? And his purpose was the employment of discovery in commerce. That is the conversion of knowledge into saleable devices. The public more and more associated “science” with its use in readily acquirable devices and facilities. Those investigative workers, asking the question WHY? were relegated in public consciousness to the ivory towers of Universities where they could ponder the explanation of the world, while the real “useful” people were conceived of as the engineers and technologists.

Thomas Edison

A peculiar form of “research” began to develop that was not carried out by scientists, but by inventors and technologists, who KNEW the available science, but required outcomes that were immediately reproducible and acquirable by the population at large. This form can best be called “suck-it-and-see”. It involved using what science had discovered but with very different purposes. Every conceivable trick was used to find cheap and effective ways of delivery of what had been shown to be possible. Such DIRECTED experiments had reversed the priority relation with scientists. Most discoveries were now made by “disinterested” scientists, while the employment of these in everyday devices was carried out by technologists, involved NO new understanding, no new explanations, but it could reveal effective answers to practical employment and use. Thus occasionally things were made which led to catastrophic consequences, such as all the passengers on a train being suffocated as it passed through a tunnel. There had been nothing wrong with the underlying science. The engine chugged on through the tunnels and emerged unscathed, but no science had been done on how passengers would be expected to react within a tunnel and they all perished. But, though the human cost was very high, the methods of the technologists, after multiple tries, did usually, in the end, provide working solutions. This method has often been termed Pragmatism – “If it works – it is right! The “god” of pragmatism was undoubtedly Thomas Elvar Edison who, in the USA in the 19th century invented functioning electric light, phonographs and many others with the sole purpose of delivering them as saleable products on the market. His objective was to turn scientific discoveries into saleable commodities to millions of customers and thus amass a fortune. Yet Edison was no scientist, he was certainly a technologist. My favourite example of this approach was the saga of the Douglas DC3 airliner/cargo carrier of the 1940s.

Douglas DC3

This aircraft was thrown together and catapulted into its first test flight resulting in an immediate crash. But if you believe in “suck-it-and-see” it is clear what you do next. The fragments were gathered together and studied with a view to correcting the fault, and a new version was quickly completed and again immediately test flown. It crashed again! The process was then repeated many times at great expense and some considerable loss of life. BUT,thefinal product turned out to be a masterpiece! It became the backbone of military transport during the Second World War from packets to paratroopers, and continued after the war to serve airlines throughout the world for many decades. The DC3 was therefore produced by pragmatic methods and proved that they do deliver.

Now this experience, particularly in the USA, led to a philosophical position also, which embodied exactly the same approach – “If it works – it is right!” or “Suck- it-and-see!” “Let’s try it for Christ’s sake!” –“Don’t constantly think about it. DO IT!” And this rather lightweight philosophy was justified by success in commercial and economic terms. The total dominance across the world of American capitalism validated their home-bred, macho philosophy and was overlaid with high sounding conceptions such as “Democracy”, “Liberty” and “Economic Success!”

Now a particular effect of this has been a deification of technology as a panacea for all problems. Technology has been turned into “science”, and is repeatedly called Science. Its practitioners are always called “scientists”, and its achievements are credited with scientific qualities and merits, such as “explaining” the origins of the Universe, or revealing the mechanisms of Nature. An example of this is how the technology of video photography, radio communications and image post-processing (all pure technology) are said to SOLVE problems of the true nature of Jupiter’s moons and many other similar cases. But, of course, what is happening is that uninformed speculation is simply being demolished by new evidence, made available by technology. Technology doesn’t present alternative explanations. It is incapable of such tasks. It merely delivers the data for scientists to interpret and explain. The prevailing attitude to Technology is, of course, so much twaddle. Technology is not Science and as such makes NO contributions to understanding the world.

Such claims are like commending the piano for the creation of a Beethoven Piano Concerto.


What utter nonsense!

Now the establishment of technology as “the most important activity in the world today” has been entrenched also by the role of Mathematics as a quantitative tool in technological achievements and problem solving. Unlike scientific qualitative explanations and theories, technology’s ever-present bed-fellow is Mathematics. The relationship between the two is also the epitome of pragmatism. The limited, yet quantitative aspect of maths formulae fits like a glove with pragmatic technology. Formulae are used until they fail at some domain boundary, thereafter being replaced pragmatically by other more appropriate ones without compunction. No technologist feels any guilt at such suck-it-and-see procedures. They are, after all, his philosophical ground. “If it works – It is right! If it fails, dump it and instead use one that works!” Thus the quantitative and pragmatic aspects of functional mathematics, is the perfect partner to “problem-solving” technology. As long as Science provides the working theories, and maths maps these onto working formulae, technology can march ahead and deliver the goods.

The social basis for Pragmatism is also of significance. Both the current dominance of the USA and the preceding dominance of the British Empire underwrote a pragmatic view of the world. The standard of living at the centre of the dominant culture was always predicated on the extraction of profits from the rest of the world, and these were rapidly taken as being natural consequences of the superiority of the prevailing pragmatic ethos of the empire builders and corporate giants. So, if such a system could provide such elevated levels for most of its general population, its methods must be correct. At the same time the demise of the Eastern Block – simultaneously with this dominance - undercut the currency of socialism, and its place as the future of the world was replaced by a “property-owning democracy” or some other euphemism for the privileges of dominance.
Now, so far we have been concentrating solely on Applied Mathematics, and it is obviously vital in all industry throughout the world. But it doesn’t exactly “thrill you to bits” does it? It is the “toolbox” conception of mathematics. Perhaps that alternative ivory tower area of the subject needs a more detailed look. After all, it seems to be the source of all maths techniques, even those used in the above pragmatic ways. What is its remit and purpose?

This is the third in a new series exploring philosophy and mathematics: Man & Reality. Part IV will be published here next Monday. 

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