Arnold Faden, April 22, 2019
My program is rather ambitious.
The world is a multitude of hierarchical organizations, e.g. atom-cell-organizations-society-earth-galaxy. . . . (the part-whole relation in space. There are also hierarchies in time: slow-medium-fast processes (A. Marshall, T. Brandel). The transition from state A to B has a certain duration, depending on context. These organizations/processes interact causally, upward or downward in the hierarchy, or horizontally across them (J. T. Bonner, L. Buss, T. Deacon).
How much—and with what degree of accuracy—do people grasp of this complexity? People have "bounded rationality" (H. A. Simon)--limitations of attention, memory, foresight, imagination, skills, power, reasoning ability, ability to influence or understand others, and sympathy. These abilities and achievements vary among persons, leading to specialization (division of labor). The more distant from one's interests, the less accurate; for humanity as a whole, science is "a candle in the dark" (C. Sagan).
Uncertainty in these matters is best characterized by probability (Bayes, de Finetti). But going from certainty to probability is an order of magnitude increase in complexity, and people universally make compromises here using approximations (not always recognized as such, which is itself a further approximation) this has been called "post-bayesian" (A. Faden).
On thinking and acting, psychologists recognize two systems: I (spontaneous action), and II (thoughtful) (D. Kahneman). But this should be a continuum, not a dichotomy, for thought can vary from a few seconds to long-range planning, to centuries of cooperative effort (some hundred mathematical problems date back to Euclid).
I'll now give some quick capsule summaries of other aspects of my program (which actually make up the great bulk of my program).
Facts tell it as it is, values as it should be. Attitudes and opinions toward each vary over persons, over groups, and over time, and are subject to disputes and conflicts. I treat them both by the same general principles of change and evolution, which seems to be over the centuries a movement toward better knowledge and goodness (S. Pinker). I should clarify that I am referring to beliefs about facts and values, not their truth or felicity.
Since this uniformity of treatment of facts and values seems to be a minority position, I will make a few further comments. First, facts are of two varieties: 1) what actually happened, as described in books of history and geography (and archeology, geology, evolutionary biology, and cosmology); 2) laws, causal and otherwise, connecting these events. Values are more akin to 2) than to 1). Values are known to vary considerably across cultures and over times (Herodotus). But—at least to some extent—might they not be enlightened responses to different environmental and social conditions? (R. A. Posner). (Consider our legal system: it may be thought of as a gigantic function mapping conflict situations into remedies.) Now consider scientific laws. These have fiercely hostile schools of thought in the history of science (T. Kuhn), which somehow tend to get reconciled over time (cf. M. Planck). The aim of science is usually taken to be the discovery of universal laws (K. Popper), though of course the evidence for this is confined to a small portion of space and time (the problem of induction, D. Hume). (Newton's dictum: what is true of all our observations is to be taken as universally true—I. Newton—is a fine pragmatic maxim, but is not certain (the "black swan" phenomenon [N. Taleb]). Indeed, many fiercely believed "laws" may turn out to be "local" (A. N. Whitehead). (The most likely regularities to be truly universal are the conservation laws—of energy, momentum, etc.--because those are based on optimality principles [E. Noether]). So scientific regularities may—in a broad sense—be as patchy as local cultural values. Finally, note, that some diversity of values may just be indifferent conventions—one language may be as good as another, for example.
The fundamental driving force behind all this, I conjecture, is a principle akin to the second law of thermodynamics: the tendency for the potential energy of a closed system to decline (W. Köhler). (This principle is basic in physical chemistry, solid-state physics, et al., though oddly not often mentioned in thermodynamics texts, which speak sometimes of free energy minimization. When combined with an even wilder conjecture—equating positive/negative potential energy with pain/pleasure--we can explain how life arises from "dead" matter, consciousness from life, and (bounded) reason from consciousness. The gap between facts and values arises from "locality"--a local reduction of pain may have ramifications increasing overall pain in a wider realm. In general, this perception vindicates Bentham's vision of morals and the greatest happiness principle.
One sees the world perspectively, depending on one's location and orientation, and also by one's attention and interests. The point to note is that perspectives are always incomplete and often distorted, and to find transformation rules between perspectives to synthesize them (R. Giere, T. Nagel, H. Gadamer).
The rules of (bayesian) statistical inference are essentially isomorphic to those of natural selection (likelihoods – survival rates by trait). So rival hypotheses compete for their share of probability.
Uncertainty covers both past and future. But the future has an extra dimension: we can contemplate alternative plans of action and choose what appears best (maximize expected value). Future probabilities must be taken conditional on these plans. This is human freedom (I. Berlin). Plan A may be tried but not succeed. Plan B may be optimal but not thought of.
Research is a form of search (A. Turing). It is usually divided into observation and experiment, but again this is a continuum rather than a dichotomy. Experimental plans have a tree-like structure extending into the future, later experiments being based on the outcomes of earlier ones. Even using a telescope manipulates a part of the physical world, and so may be thought of as an experiment.
Strengthening the causal bonds between organizations such that both benefit creates a new higher organization (symbiosis, mutualism). This process includes social movements, contracts, and "forming a more perfect union" (J. Madison). Conversely, weakening bonds can destroy unities. (Compare language evolution: decline of the Roman Empire: Latin--> Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, etc.)
Long-lived organizations act to keep their parts mutually supporting each other. For countries, these acts include crime control, the legal system, the economic system, patriots, norms, and customs. Internal discords tend to be ironed out: there is a "strain toward consistency in the mores" (W. G. Sumner).
I will end by giving an (incomplete) list of other topics I cover: learning (G. Tarde, D. Sperber); cooperation, competition, and conflict; evaluation measures (S. Kuznets); tests and credentials (R. Collins); communication, social distance (T. Veblen); quantification and standardization (T. M. Porter).
Obviously these topics overlay and intertwine—with each other and those above. There are also some far-reaching unifying schemes I have not mentioned, as they are rather speculative at this point.