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On Explanations

Absent-Minded Science, Part X


This is the concluding piece in my series on absent-minded science, an extended critique of modern science’s tendency to willfully or unintentionally ignore mind in its explanations.

Tigger: Well, hello there Eeyore, my friend – lovely day isn’t it?

Eeyore: Lovely is all relative, isn’t it? Compared to yesterday I guess it is fair to say that today is lovely.

Tigger: Er… Yes! It is all relative, and today is indeed lovely compared to yesterday. But, you know Mr. Eeyore, this brings to mind a little philosophical problem I’ve been pondering.

Tam Hunt

Eeyore: Oh yes? [His large ears perk up as Eeyore loves philosophy almost as much as Owl.] Since when do you like philosophy my bouncy friend?

Tigger: Oh yes! [Tigger bounces on his tail in excitement.] You’ll be very interested in this, I have no doubt. I have been pondering… explanations.

Eeyore: Explanations?

Tigger: Yes! Explanations. Why are we convinced of certain explanations and not others? What is it that changes our minds and hearts?

Eeyore: Harrumph. Well, I’ll grant you that this is indeed an interesting problem with no ready answer.

Tigger: Exactly! But we can certainly attempt some answers, can we not? I, for one, have come to realize that the most reasonable answer isn’t always the most convincing for most people. Reason, while cited by practically all scientists, philosophers, and thinking animals and people more generally, can only take us so far. And I have noticed, as I spend more years bouncing around this little blue planet of ours, that what seems eminently reasonable to one person can seem utterly perplexing to others.

Eeyore: But reason is reason my tiger friend. Everyone knows that that Greek fellow Aristotle established the rules of reason thousands of years ago. Aristotle showed that through basic rules of deductive logic we could discover everything about the world that may be discovered.

Tigger: Oh he did, did he? I should like to meet this fellow some time.

Eeyore: He’s dead, you ninny.

Tigger: Oh. Well, that is indeed unfortunate. It seems to me, however, that reason can take us only so far in explaining the world – and perhaps even less far in convincing people to change their views. Owl was telling me about something called paradox, or self-contradiction, as inherent in all logical systems. Some fellow named Guhhhdel established this mathematically, though Owl tells me it can be shown very clearly with the simple statement: “This sentence is false.” If it’s true, it’s false and if it’s false it’s true. Paradox is inescapabobble.

Eeyore [thinking for a moment as he nibbles some grass]: Oh yes, I vaguely recall Owl telling me about that gentleman. Well, I suppose logic may not be as impregnable as it should be, but it certainly works well enough for me. I haven’t come across any such paradoxes in my life.

Tigger: Neither have I! Guhhhdel’s theorem doesn’t mean science itself is invalid as a tool. But it shows that logic itself is not entirely logical and that science is a limited tool – it’s not all-powerful. And, more generally, it seems to me that we rely on logic in our lives less than you are suggesting. It seems to me that most animals and people rely more on stories than on logic.

Eeyore: Stories? What the devil are you talking about?

Tigger: We may after all be merely figments of someone else’s imagination.

Eeyore: Erm, that thought had occurred to me once in a while. It would be just my luck to not even be real.

Tigger: Ah, but is it so bad to be the product of another’s imagination? Are not all of us, after all, the product of a hidden Author? Owl knows another fellow, the Alchemist, who says that all that we see and know of was written by just one hand. Including us. That hand is surely not a tiger’s paw, a donkey’s hoof, or a human’s hand, but one hand nonetheless.

Eeyore: I never much liked stories. And I certainly don’t like hidden paws, hoofs or hands. I prefer facts.

Tigger: But Eeyore, my dear friend, there are no facts without stories and no stories without facts. In fact, as with so many things there is no sharp dividing line between facts and stories. I would go even further, however, and suggest to you that all facts are nothing but stories. They are mini-stories inside of a larger story. Stories within stories within stories.

Eeyore: Now you’re talking nonsense you exuberant naïf. Of course facts are not stories. Facts are facts. I kick this rock with my hoof and establish thus the fact of the rock. [Eeyore winces a little as he does so.]

Tigger: Don’t hurt yourself my equine friend! The rock is indeed a story that you tell yourself. This doesn’t mean the story is fantabobulous – it can be as real as anything, and surely the rock is as real as anything else you care to kick (or merely point to instead if you prefer not to stub your hoof). But the rock is nevertheless a story in the sense I am suggesting because all things are stories. Or perhaps “argument” is a better word: all things are arguments of which we convince ourselves and then try to convince others. Those “facts” that are generally accepted by most people are those stories, those arguments, that most people find believable and nothing more. Mutual and widespread belief is the mark of a good story, is it not?

Eeyore: My, Tigger, haven’t you grown? Who have you been talking to lately?

Tigger: I talk to whoever will talk with me and I find almost every animal or person has something of value to share. Even Roo and Piglet, those sweet children. Especially those sweet children. Anyway, evening shall soon fall and I have no guarantee that the sun shall come up again tomorrow, though I certainly hope it shall. I must be off! Until we meet again, my furry fellow! [Tigger bounces away whistling loudly.]

Eeyore [muttering to himself as Tigger recedes]: Thank heavens. I can only handle so much Tigger at a time. What a strangely exuberant creature he is.

Tam Hunt is a philosopher, lawyer and biologist. He lives in Santa Barbara and keeps a blog, Thought, Spirit, Politik at www.tamhunt.blogspot.com.

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