Sunday, February 05, 2012

Book Review: The Blind Spot by William Byers

The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty

William Byers

Princeton University Press, 2011

Full review on Amazon.

Interesting food for thought, a reason for some humility, and an argument for perspectivism

I got some real value out of this book because it made me think more deeply about an important and fundamental philosophical problem, the problem of knowability.  How well do we directly know the universe we live in, and how well can even our best explanations really help us grasp it?  In the Western intellectual tradition, the question goes all the way back to the ancients, and we still frame it in much the same way they did.  The problem is fairly obvious to any reasonably reflective person I think, but I suspect most people tend to assume it is either an illusion or something of little consequence.
We have come to understand a massive number of details about our existence in various ways through science and we have discovered that with a bit of ingenuity, we can use mathematics to describe and predict the behavior of real things remarkably well.  This gives many of us the sense that we can grasp just about anything about our existence in the same way.  Afterall, from the modern humanistic point of view, what else is there besides our scientific causal explanations, our mathematical models, and our various superstitions? 

Byers seems to be playing something like the mischievous role of Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park here in some ways. He is telling us that we shouldn't be so certain that we really understand everything the way we think we do.  Nature will always surprise us.  And he is not saying this because he thinks we should believe in miracles or because science doesn't work as well as we think.  He is saying it because science and mathematics cover the universe as we experience it rather like a lumpy carpet covers a smooth floor.  You can push down the lumps, but they always pop up again somewhere else. 

Our ability to explain our existence doesn't quite map to the totality of that existence in any uniform way.  We end up taking different perspectives on the same things in order to understand what we perceive.  This need to take different perspectives is "ambiguity." Our sense of certainty about what we understand, the perception of smooth areas of carpet, is not an illusion, but neither is it absolute, perfectly generallizable, not even entirely objective.  We tend to ignore ambiguity when we see it because it makes us feel uncomfortable.  Byers claims this discomfort creates a permanent blindspot in our perception of our own existence. 

The central theme of the book is that there are many different expressions of ambiguity in nature, and that they are all expressions of the same underlying limitation in our ability to grasp nature in terms of concepts and symbols.  It isn't just that there are some problems more difficult than others, it may be, according to Byers, that some difficulties are impossible to resolve permanently, they will always appear again in another form whenever we grasp them.  Blindspot tells us that something about the territory makes it fundamentally unmappable in any complete and consistent sense.  This, for Byers, drives us to keep trying to explain by grappling with the ambiguity in nature.

Byers makes some fascinating points and uses a lot of good examples from mathematics and science to make his points.  Most of the examples will be familiar to avid readers of science and math.  They include the usual suspects such as Godel's Incompleteness, Heisenberg's Uncertainty, wave/particle duality, the problem of the objective and subjective perspectives, intentionality, self-reference, and so on. Byers also draws on his own field of mathematics for some less well trodden examples such as real number theory and differential vs. integral calculus. 

While this book is definitely worthwhile in my opinion, I don't quite share the same excitement as some of the other reviewers because I also found it very repetitive and for me personally it sometimes seems to jump from point to point without really taking on important points in the detail they deserve.  I think this impression I get comes from Byers background in mathematics.  He will often start to talk about something I find really interesting, like the problem of intentionality or the problem of mental causation, but quickly turn it back into a logical question instead of exploring the scientific or philosophical questions in more detail.  I suppose my criticism is that Byers seems to be a "math" but not a "polymath" and the ambitious topic he has taken on may require someone with deep understanding of many different fields, since the thesis is that the blindspot is not just a quirk of mathematics but of our symbolic and conceptual abilities in general.

Ultimately I think the claim Byers is making is basically that the perception of clear understanding of nature is a local phenomenon not a global one because we can never get rid of the problem of incompatible but valid perspectives.  We can make the carpet perfectly smooth in an area, but we can never make the whole carpet completely smooth.  The "consilience" of nature's laws will never have a final expression in one scheme because we can't ever reconcile the different viewpoints that: (1) accurately describe situations, (2) are each self-consistent, and (3) are not only different but incompatible with each other. 

From my perspective, I think Byers has identified the problem in a legitimate way, but his logical arguments don't really convince me that the problem of perspectives is forever irreconcileable.  I agree with him that we should take the problem(s) more seriously than we do, since we usually wave this sort of problem away through various tactics.  I also agree that we should incorporate the challenge of multiple perspectives in our thinking.  It is not clear to me that the lumps are an intrinsic part of nature, or that they are all manifestations of the same blind spot, and Byers doesn't seem to me to exhibit the depth and breadth of scientific knowledge across the various relevant disciplines to make that point stick, but it does seem reasonable to think of them that way until we have actually smoothed them out and to take Byers' claim seriously as at least a sensible policy and a reason for humility.

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