Finch: It was strange. I suddenly had this feeling that everything was connected. It was like I could see the whole thing…one long chain of events that stretched all the way back before Lark Hill. I felt like I could see everything that had happened, and everything that was going to happen. It was like a perfect pattern laid out in front of me, and I realized that we are all part of it, and all trapped by it.
Dominic: So do you know what’s going to happen?
Finch: No, it was a feeling. But I can guess…
- V for Vendetta
A couple days ago I watched V for Vendetta for something like the 500th time. It is one of those brilliant movies I can watch over and over again, and notice something new each time (including a few flaws here and there). This time what struck me was the subtly implied dialectic between artistic sentimentality – characterized by V among others – and the coldly rationalistic orientation characterized by the villains, primarily Creedy and Suttler.
The plot of the movie is revealed through the investigations of Chief Inspector Finch, as he gradually uncovers the connections between V’s personal history and the rise to power of the authoritarian Norsefire party. Despite being a party member, Finch is identifiable as a protagonist by his embrace of intuition and narrative, as in the quote above. The contrast is particularly clear in the following exchange:
Nameless Yes-man: Chancellor, I know no one seems to want to discuss this but, [deep breath] if we are to be prepared for any eventuality, then it can’t be ignored any longer. The red report in front of you has been vetted by several demolition specialists. Now it concludes that the most logical delivery system for the terrorist to use would be an airborne attack.
A seperate report has been filed suggesting a train, despite the fact that the tunnels surrounding parliament have been sealed shut.
Chancellor Suttler: [ominously] Who filed that report?
Nameless Yes-man: Chief Inspector Finch.
Chancellor Suttler: Do you have any evidence to support this conclusion Mr. Finch?
Finch: No sir, it’s just a feeling.
Chancellor Suttler: [menacing] If I am sure of anything Inspector Finch it is that this government will not survive if it is to be subject to your feelings.
In this exchange the line is drawn. The unlikely protagonist follows his internal compass while the villain berates him for lack of evidence. This is a curious dichotomy, and one I am beginning to recognize more frequently in the zeitgeist. It is not only villainous politicians who express this attitude. The intellectual community offers it own flavor in the form of empirical extremism.
They blithely dismiss any information that is not sourced from double-blind placebo controlled studies. When presented with new ideas, the empirical extremist reflexively denigrates any propositions he deems untestable. Conjectures that have not been tested, or that are not yet testable, are dismissed as unscientific.
We see this accusation levied today at ongoing theoretical endeavors like string theory. Wikipedia notes:
Opponents, such as David Gross, suggest that the idea is inherently unscientific, unfalsifiable or premature.
My perusals through wikipedia revealed fewer criticisms of this sort than I expected, so perhaps this debate is maturing within the academic community. Nevertheless, such criticisms are alive and well in online discussion forums and in popular science culture. Consider for example the worldview implied by the xkcd comics below. First, endorsing half-baked empiricism:
Similarly, I recently began reading Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization by Adrian Bejan. [Check out John Hagel's thorough review for a nice summary of the constructal law.] A quick glance at the associated wikipedia page reveals criticisms almost identical to those above:
The main criticism of constructal theory is that its formulation is vague. The constructal law states that “For a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it”, but there is neither a mention of what these “currents” are nor an explicit definition of what “providing easier access” means. As a result, constructal theory is very versatile, but often unconvincing: depending on the choices made for the currents and the “access” to them, it can lead to extremely different results.
My intent here is not to start a debate about the validity of either theory (though admittedly I am intrigued by constructal theory).
I am more interested in the form of the criticisms themselves. Though such skepticism may seem justified when presented in isolation, it is far more tenuous when considered in appropriate context.
The history of science is replete with “unscientific” ideas that were only gradually developed into empirically testable theories through long periods of speculative development.
When studying any complex phenomenon it is inevitable that researchers will intuit certain insights prior to formulating testable hypotheses. When the subject matter in question is a candidate unified theory of everything (string theory) it is not unreasonable to expect that formulating testable hypotheses might take many years.
Albert Einstein published his first paper on the theory of special relativity in 1905. In a 1907 publication he predicted gravitational time dilation (the notion that time slows down for particles/objects moving near the speed of light), but that hypothesis would not be testable for many years. In a 1911 publication on general relativity Einstein predicted the gravitational deflection of light. The first evidence confirming that prediction would not be produced until 1919.
Surely we don’t want to claim that Albert Einstein was dabbling in pseudoscience in those 15 years before the experimentalists caught up with his theory?
But if we accept the standards implied above, we would have to conclude that indeed he was. He was promulgating what appeared to be an untestable theory, and the initial skepticism with which relativity was received reflected that assessment. Case in point, in 1921 Einstein was granted the Nobel prize, not for his work on relativity, but rather for his work on the photoelectric effect, as relativity was still considered controversial.
Einstein’s example makes clear the shortcoming of the strict empiricist attitude. That attitude is not incorrect so much as it is myopic.
In short, it denies the role of art in science. It denies the importance of intuition and insight. It presumes that all “scientific” thinking must be conducted bottom-up, ignoring the role of top-down observation in guiding empirical experimentation.
The Role of Art in Science
It should not be surprising that the counterpoint to myopic rationalism is to be found in the arts rather than the sciences. As Evey says in V for Vendetta – “Artists use lies to tell the truth.” Ideally, science would use the truth to tell the truth…but unfortunately the path to objective truth is not always readily apparent. Sometimes we need to catch a glimpse of subjective truth in order to orient the search for objective truth.
Those glimpses of subjective truth are the domain of art. The translation of subjective truth into formal hypothesis is the domain of the theoretician. If the world were simple, such translation would not be necessary. Fortunately, the world is not simple. It is beautiful and complex and offers plenty of fodder for theoreticians to play with.
To ignore the existence of complex problems in need of theoretical translation is the epitome of irrationality. The dogmatic empiricists, who demand evidence before opening their minds to any new possibility, remain willfully ignorant of the labyrinthine nature of reality. They are choosing to restrict their vision to only the reductive world quantifiable with current tools and technologies. Historian Jacob Burckhardt described their folly thusly:
The essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity.
I can do no better Burckhardt so I will leave it there for today…
photo courtesy of brandoncripps