The pandemic seems to be receding, thankfully, in the UK and this means that we are now left to confront the challenge of re-thinking arrangements and assumptions across a huge range of contentious issues —the ones which have been mercilessly exposed as inadequate and dangerous by the pandemic.
So we are approaching a cusp of history, where the challenges are immense, the dangers of failure to meet them are immense, and the rewards for handling them appropriately, are also immense. To handle them well will require reasoning of great power and quality. That is the basic raison d’etre behind this series of Blogs.
Necessity, the old adage says, is the Mother of Invention. Well, today we urgently need an improved “philosophy” in the old-fashioned sense of “worldview”. This is today’s No. 1 NECESSITY. We have reached this pass, unfortunately, after four decades of disarray in philosophy (the post-modern pandemonium) and four decades of sub-standard schooling based on knee-jerk short-term thinking. Education, the common public service with the longest of long-term goals —to prepare youth mentally for a satisfying kind of adult life— has been operated by a gang of so-called “cognitive scientists”. They were installed by corporate business, and they have taken the ultra-short-term horizons of hectic commerce for granted. They have crammed children with supposedly important information, while grossly neglecting the values, synoptic long-term thinking and reflection needed to digest it properly.
This doesn’t augur well for finding a new convincing worldview. The kind of exotic profundity-signalling which commonly passes for “philosophy” today is not going to change its stripes. And what has been most grievously neglected in schooling during the last four decades is precisely the hard synoptic thinking and reflecting which will be needed to float a new valid worldview.
So is everything really hopeless? Is existential despair the only appropriate, realistic stance we can take… as our flawed modern civilisation sinks slowly below the icy waves like the SS Titanic in 1912?
No, not at all! Not a bit!
The timely new worldview we need has already arrived. It centres round an extraordinary development. We have finally escaped from a form of thought-tyranny which has been cramping the human mind for a very long time —uncritical, unlimited know-towing on the frontiers of epistemology to —mathematics.
A deeply uncritical kind of quasi-mystic higher mathematic elite has somehow survived even the traumas of post modern chaos.
This doesn’t mean that ordinary mathematics has lost its value. On the contrary, we have been seriously under-estimating the value of ordinary mathematics, during the dumb irrationality of the post modern pandemonium. Ordinary mathematics has a great part to play in enabling us to see the overall structure of many situations. Its deficiency only becomes apparent when it is pushed to the limit, and applied to the final frontiers of epistemology.
Unfortunately higher maths is very much a performance subject, and its chief Exemplars, who are the de facto bosses of the mathematic profession, are wedded to an ancient notion (myth) about the meaning of mathematics which was first articulated by Plato. So the subject’s deficiency is, in effect, locked into place. It is a myth which seems to guarantee the status of the subject and its Exemplars, but which is a discussion-stopper in relation to properly understanding mathematics’ place in the universe.
The huge discovery announced in this series in No. 1 and spelled-out in Nos 3 and 4, reveals that mathematics is not the “only possible way” really to understand the universe as aa abstract totality. Indeed it is revealed as a relatively awkward way to model the universe, because it is too static, too passive and too timeless by half. There is no way in which a timeless mathematical narrative can account for the great gift of personal autonomy and freedom we, as human beings, are born with.
Rousseau famously said that we are born free, but are everywhere in chains. Well, most of the obvious chains have gone, but they have been replaced by unobvious chains, like being poor, being trapped in tedious repetitive jobs, being dependent of alcohol or drugs, being unable to “say it as it is” because intolerant politically correct or woke thought police won’t allow adverse sentiments to be aired in public for fear of upsetting the fragile self-esteem of downtrodden subgroups.
How did we get to here?
It is only since the computer revolution that mathematics has become the tacit, final language of authority in most branches of human activity. The computer has enabled this. But an unwanted collateral side-effect has also happened. The sheer amount of mathematisation which has occurred has become oppressive. Formerly one of the chief virtues of mathematics was that it provided a source of acceptable authority, because it lacked suggestions of blame, violence or threats of violence. It was intrinsically even handed neutral and impartial. This quality is the hallmark of the kind of ordinary mathematics which has flowered for 2,500 years in The West: it has maximal transparency. Many civilisations have developed their own inimitable ethnographic versions of mathematics. But the kind of mathematics which had the X-factor —of driving helpful science and technology— is the rigorous, 100% transparent kind which hoves from Classical Greece.
The computer has now magnified the power of such maths a thousandfold, but there has been an inevitable trade-off —an almost complete loss of the very transparency which introduced the magic. Without transparency, the answers derived from mathematic computer algorithms cannot fail to smack of oppression. Fielding them as such in debate smacks of ‘blackboxing’. Fielding them in personally sensitive software is inexcusable.
At the same time, as a result of the crisis in physics, mathematics has become trapped in a quagmire of conceptual confusion on the frontiers of epistemology. This is in addition to the loss of its formerly charming transparency when applied to ordinary problem-solving.
So mathematics the much hidden, tacit language of modernity, has fallen under a cloud.
It doesn’t help that modern science has, in effect, driven out the former hopeful, emotive narratives associated with the three Abrahamic religions. They may have been based on myths and unapologetic feeling, but their associated moral codes were a source of civilised order, social stability and accurate appreciation of the sensibilities of youth. Modern science, alas, has, and can have, no enlightening effect to compensate for this loss. It has now been computer-mathematicised to the nth degree. It also lacks any kind of overall sense or feeling of purpose, and it is lumbered with a methodology of provisionality and specialised myopia.
Whatever has gone wrong?
Chiefly TINA (the common mantra <<there is no alternative!>>).
This TINA has been the unquestioned dogma of Western civilisation since time immemorial. (The mathematicians have always done their damndest to maintain it in place.) Mathematics has been, in effect, the default motif of Western culture since the time of Pythagoras.
What are the implications of this argument?
1 Maths education needs to change radically to restore the transparency expectation which was so beneficial and even-handed in the past. This means that computer code, too, will need to become transparent. Mathematics needs to be shown in classrooms as a genuine source of light and reason. This can be done by adopting the Peircean insight that mathematics is the <<science of hypothesis>>. By using it again and again to illuminate the implications of fascinating hypotheses students begin to see it as the hub of enlightenment. It still is a great source of enlightenment, even though a greater enlightenment has begun to appear.
2 There is now a credible alternative abstract modelling discipline, Actimatics. It’s building brick is absolute randomness, so it is utterly different from mathematics. It can in principle generate (define) 100% abstract relativistic objects similar to the fundamental particles of physics. This means that a vast, intricately organised, totality of such structures could, in principle, produce a world containing human beings with minds. But it, itself, only requires the existence of minds to exist: they are the source of the system’s necessary definitions. So here we have an amazing, rational explanation of why anything exists at all! Actimatics immediately raises a thousand questions, about how such a complex existential circle can be closed, but by the same token, they are the glorious scientific challenges which future generations will, probably —with great satisfaction— manage to unravel.
CHRISTOPHER ORMELL 1st May 2021