Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue #155                                                  March 16, 2004
                 A Publication of The Nature Institute
           Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (

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Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk
in submission to its inevitabilities?  NetFuture is a voice for
responsibility.  It depends on the generosity of those who support
its goals.  To make a contribution, click here.


Editor's Note

Do Physical Laws Make Things Happen? (Stephen L. Talbott)
   Habits of the Technological Mind #4


   Beyond ADHD Generalizations (Jon Johanning)
   I Am an Adult Taking Ritalin (Hanan Cohen)

About this newsletter


                              EDITOR'S NOTE

Check out The New Atlantis for my article, not previously published in
NetFuture, entitled "A More Child-like Science?"  It deals with the kind
of science that proposes to give us "better children" (for example,
through genetic engineering), and how this science might learn from the
children it would improve.  I focus on the difference between the psyche-
and value-laden world of the child and the fact-world of science, arguing
that the latter is a kind of borderline fiction.  You'll find the entire
issue of The New Atlantis at

Also, be sure to read the two letters to the editor below, taking issue
with my article on drugs and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.
(I would that all letters to the editor were written so effectively.)
Stimulated by these letters, I hope to offer some rather more personal
reflections on the topic in the next issue of NetFuture.


Goto table of contents


                   Habits of the Technological Mind #4

                            Stephen L. Talbott

Previous articles in this series:
Part 1, "Intelligence and Its Artifacts", in NF #148.
Part 2, "The Vanishing World-Machine", in NF #151.
Part 3, "The Limits of Predictability", in NF #153.

In "The Limits of Predictability" I tried to show the great distance
between understanding a certain lawfulness inherent in events and
predicting or explaining the events themselves.  Contrary to all current
thinking within science, the more uncompromisingly we formulate the
precise and determining action of a physical law, the less it tells us
about the events it governs.  We gain more and more exactness about less
and less of the world's concrete expression.

I illustrated this by describing what happens when we release a leaf in a
vacuum chamber.  The leaf now "drops like a rock".  That is, we get a
trajectory that seems to be little more than the graphic display of a
mathematical expression we call the "law of gravity".  To see an event in
this way as a mathematical necessity made visible gives us a powerful
sense of explanation.

But -- and this was the decisive point -- if we restrict ourselves to the
sphere of our mathematical explanation and do not smuggle in qualitative
aspects of the phenomenon lying outside the explanation, then we no longer
even know whether we're dealing with a leaf or rock!  The explanation, in
its own terms and despite all its precision, gives us no means to
distinguish between the two.  We highlight a law equally implicit in both
leafy and rocky phenomena by sacrificing everything distinctive in those
phenomena to the single, implicit aspect we are looking for.

Truth and Artifice

The experiment is both legitimate and valuable.  But perhaps we should
explore what it obscures -- namely, the concrete and distinctive reality
of the leaf -- as well as what it clarifies through the graphic depiction
of a law abstracted from that reality.  What is the relation between the
gain and the loss?

But the issue is even more serious than this question suggests.  After
all, when we do look at the fuller reality of our experimental truth --
and thereby recognize, for example, that we are dealing with a leaf rather
than a rock -- we see that the experiment introduced a false note:  leaves
never behave that way in nature.  They could not do so and still be
leaves.  We have obtained the skeletal truth of our quantitative law not
only by scraping the flesh off the phenomenon we are observing, but by
replacing it with artificial flesh.

If it is important to preserve the truth of the experiment, it is equally
important to acknowledge and correct the artificiality.  The correction
will require us to accept the observable world's lawfulness as it is
actually given to us rather than as we have learned to think of it.  That
is, we will have to accept a lawfulness inherent in, or implicit in, or
expressed by full-fleshed phenomena -- not a lawful authority dissolving
and falsifying these phenomena or (to change the metaphor) ruling them
like some despot lording it over his subjects.

The vacuum experiment can help us understand what gravity has to do with a
leaf dancing on a twig or floating and fluttering to the ground -- but
only if we first allow our leaf to escape from the vacuum chamber and back
into its own world.

But there is no overestimating the hunger for precise, universal, and
despotically deterministic laws -- laws that "govern" phenomena rather as
algorithms are thought to govern our machines.  If we insist on such laws,
we will obtain them after a fashion.  We will even find experimental
vindication for them wherever, through artifice, we can isolate the
desired aspect of a phenomenon from all else.  But the observable world we
started out to explain will disappear from such laws, much as the separate
character of rock and leaf disappear into the mathematical law of gravity.

Sorting this out will require some delicate analysis and patience.  It
could hardly be otherwise when we are dealing with errors and omissions
that have influenced our culture's thinking for hundreds of years.  But
the analysis will yield striking rewards.  The gap between the idea of a
law implicit in the world's phenomena and a law fully determining or
explaining or characterizing those phenomena turns out to be as large as
it is subtle -- large enough, we will eventually see, to serve as the
misconceived arena within which nearly the entire history of conflict
between science and religion has taken place.

The Dream of Determinism

Perhaps you have been thinking that we can get from the gravitational
description of a leaf's descent in the vacuum chamber to a full
characterization of the individual leaf in all its reality if only we
factor in all the other known scientific laws.  You will recall that in
"The Limits of Predictability" I left open this possibility.  More
broadly: could it be that if we knew all the laws bearing on phenomena and
if we likewise exactly understood the current state of every particle or
other entity in the universe, we would be in the position of Pierre Simon
Laplace's famous "universal intelligence"?  The great mathematician put it
this way:

   Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the
   forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the
   beings who compose it -- an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit
   these data to analysis -- it would embrace in the same formula the
   movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the
   lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as
   the past, would be present to its eyes.  (1951, p. 4)

Now, you may be inclined to dismiss Laplace's celebrated determinism as
outmoded in an era of chaos theory and quantum mechanics.  But his way of
thinking about law continues to rule the minds of most people -- and even
the minds of scientists most of the time.  We have by no means surmounted
the error it represents.

What is needed, even more than appeals to the exotic and philosophically
perplexing results of modern physics, is an ability to recognize how
misguided Laplace's opinion already was when he voiced it in the early
nineteenth century, at the triumphant height of Newtonian science.  I'm
convinced that only when we understand the illusions of that earlier,
supremely confident era will we begin to penetrate the long-resistant but
promising scientific conundrums of our own day.

On Being Precise About Nothing Much

Only a madman would deny that our formulation of quantitative law aids our
understanding of the world.  It enables us to predict things more or less,
even if not in a Laplacean manner.  A world without predictability would
be a world without order; it would render our existence meaningless and
intolerable.  Actually, such a world is not even conceivable.  What we do
find is, in Alexander Pope's words,

   Not chaos-like together crush'd and bruis'd,
   But, as the world, harmoniously confus'd:
   Where order in variety we see,
   And where, though all things differ, all agree.

The decisive question is not whether there is predictable order in the
world.  Nor is it whether mathematically precise laws focus our attention
upon elements of this order -- which obviously they do.  Rather, we need
to ask how, in their strictly quantitative, precise, and unequivocal
aspect, laws relate to the world they help us understand.

We can find our answer by exploring all those domains where we have
learned to extract one or another sort of lawful syntax -- that is, a
purely formal structure -- from the content of the domain.  Or, I might
say:  from the harmoniously confused order and variety of the domain.  We
do this, for example, whenever we strive to articulate as clearly and
unambiguously as possible the logical, mathematical, or grammatical
structure of some aspect of the world.  I say "unambiguously" because the
overriding aim here is always for clarity and exactness, for unqualified
validity, for the simplest possible rules with the most universal reach.
"A does not equal not-A".

We must aim for this unqualified exactness.  At least, we must do so
with some of our cognitive energies.  But our various syntactic endeavors
have taught us two things:

** If we strain toward nothing but syntactic clarity, precision, and
   universal applicability, then we progressively lose the meaning, or
   semantic content, that our syntactic constructs were originally
   intended to elucidate.

** If, on the other hand, we preserve this content and observe how the
   syntactic rules or laws work within it, we find that these laws no
   longer have the same ruling or determining character we so naturally
   impute to a pure, isolated syntax.

As for the first of these points, I do not believe we can ever arrive at a
pure and exact syntax that is not the syntax of something, however
vaguely conceived.  But this does not matter at the moment.  We remain
intent on pressing toward such empty structure, and we have come
close enough to the goal for Ludwig Wittgenstein to say of formal logic
that all its propositions "mean the same thing, namely nothing".  And
close enough for Bertrand Russell to say that formal mathematics is "the
subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what
we are saying is true".  And close enough again for contemporary
linguists, following Noam Chomsky, to imagine the possibility of a pure
grammar that is not the grammar of any particular content1.

Nothing here is terribly difficult to see.  In assigning universal
validity to "A does not equal not-A", we say that it is true of everything
-- every A -- in the universe.  But, unavoidably, what is true of
everything without qualification doesn't tell us much about anything in
particular.  Having emptied our terms of their concrete and qualitative
content in the hunt for universal validity, we find that we can say
nothing much about the world, but we can say it with absolute precision
and certainty!2

But now our interest is more positive -- not how we tend to lose the
content we are investigating when our single-minded concern is to abstract
an unqualified lawful syntax from it, but rather: if we are willing to
keep the content in view, how do we discover its lawful syntax living in
and informing the content?

If we want to understand the world and not merely the abstract revolutions
of our own minds, then this is the decisive question.  What is the
relation between syntax, on the one hand, and semantics (content or
meaning) on the other?

Speech and World

In a certain way we are all as intimate with the answer as with our own
speech.  We are, after all, experts at producing meaningful content
informed by lawful -- that is, logical and grammatical -- relations; we do
so every time we speak.  And there are two things to say about this
accomplishment.  One is that our speech could not have any coherent or
meaningful content if it lacked the sort of ordered, syntactic relations
we have learned to distill through logical and grammatical analysis.
Imagine speech with no lawlike structure whatever and you will be
imagining gibberish.

In the second place, however, the lawful syntax of our language does not
in any absolute sense govern our speech as a meaningful whole, does not
fully explain its content, and never allows us to predict with certainty
what the next words of a speech or text will be.  While there must be
lawful order, it is an order implicit in and growing out of this content,
not controlling or determining it.  The content reveals itself as the
source, significance, and limitation of the law.

When we construct a syntactically proper sentence, we do not achieve our
result by assembling pre-existing words in a way predetermined by
grammatical rules.  While there are many complex and diverse movements of
mind as we speak, it is fair to say very generally that we first have an
idea, inchoate though it may be, and then we seek to capture and clothe
this idea in words.  Each word gains its full meaning -- becomes the word
it now is -- through the way it is conjoined with other words under the
influence of the originating idea.  The word simply didn't exist as this
particular word before -- as a word with these nuances of meaning3.

So an antecedent whole (an idea) becomes immanent in and thereby
transforms and constitutes its parts (words), making them what they are.
In terms of active agency, it is less that the parts constitute the whole
than the other way around.  And since the grammatical structure of any
text depends on the meanings of the words, this structure therefore varies
as the meanings vary.  It appears, then, that the rules of grammar -- the
way they are orchestrated in this particular text -- can be thought of as
a result of the way a meaningful whole manifests itself through its parts.

In other words, the pattern of syntactic lawfulness in a sentence, far
from tyrannizing over the sentence and eliminating the possibility of
meaningful content, is itself an expression of the meaning.  This is what
we will find wherever we can trace the forms of a lawful syntax.

An Objection, Briefly Considered

This, of course, needs elaboration.  But first:  you may be wondering how
in the world we have gotten from science to language.  What does the
syntactic structure of language have to do with the syntactic or lawful
structure of the physical world?  The question bears within it nearly all
the pathologies afflicting today's science, and this entire series of
articles, when completed, might be taken as my response.  Perhaps it is
enough for the moment to say the following:

Does the scientist gain a communicable understanding of the world or not?
If not, then our entire discussion of physical law is senseless.  But if
so, then our assessment of what the scientist's language is capable of
saying is at the same time an assessment of what the language is capable
of saying about the world.  When the language we use to communicate
our understanding of the world is substantially drained of its content,
the world we describe is also substantially drained of its content.

In speaking, we aim to make the structure and meaning of our language the
structure and meaning of whatever we are talking about.  This intention
and this achievement are of the essence; they are what make our utterances
language.  To the extent we fail in the achievement, our speech is
meaningless and we might as well cease talking about scientific
understanding at all.  But if we succeed, our scientific speech becomes an
image of the world we are seeking to reveal4.  The fullness of the image
will depend upon the fullness of the language with which we sketch it.
If our formulations of physical law are compacted of little more than
mathematical, logical, and grammatical syntax, emptied of content, then
our world will likewise be emptied of content.  The laws may be exact,
but most of the world will have disappeared from them.

But perhaps we can set all this aside and simply say this:  anyone who
wishes to do so may propose a relation between the syntax of physical law
and the content in which it is found that is different from the relation
between syntax and content in the speech we use to convey our scientific
understanding.  But where is any such proposal?  When we look at the
prevailing view of physical law, all we find is the kind of incoherence I
will now try to highlight.

The Impossibility of Mere Obedience to Law

The conviction that laws somehow give us a full accounting of events seems
often to be based on the idea that they govern the world's substance or
matter from outside, "making" things happen.  If this is the case,
however, then we must provide some way for matter to recognize and then
obey these external laws.  But, plainly, whatever supports this capacity
for recognition and obedience cannot itself be the mere obedience.
Anything capable of obeying wholly external laws is not only its obedience
but also its capability, and this capability remains unexplained by the

If, with so many scientists today, we construe laws as rules, we can put
the matter this way:  much more than rule-following is required of
anything able to follow rules; conversely, no set of rules can by
themselves explain the presence or functioning of that which is capable of
following them.

It is, in other words, impossible to imagine matter that does not have
some character of its own.  To begin with, it must exist.  But if it
exists, it must do so in some particular manner, according to its own way
of being.  Even if we were to say, absurdly, that its only character is to
obey external laws, this "law of obedience" itself could not be just
another one of the external laws being obeyed.  Something will be "going
on" that could not be understood as obedience to law, and this something
would be an essential expression of what matter was.  To apprehend the
world we would need to understand this expressive character in its own
right, and we could never gain such an understanding solely through a
consideration of external laws.

So we can hardly find coherence in the rather dualistic notion that
physical laws reside, ghost-like, in some detached, abstract realm from
which they impinge upon matter.  But if, contrary to our initial
assumption, we take laws to be in one way or another bound up with the
world's substance -- if we take them to be at least in part an expression
of this substance -- then the difficulty in the conventional view of law
becomes even more intense.  Surely it makes no sense to say that the
world's material phenomena are the result -- the wholly explained result
-- of matter obeying laws which it is itself busy expressing.  In whatever
manner we prefer to understand the material expression of the laws, this
expression cannot be a matter of obedience to the laws being expressed!
If whatever is there as the substance of the world at least in part
determines the laws, then the laws cannot be said to determine what is

All this gives you some indication why so many scientists, when stepping
back from the rather messy reality of their daily work and considering the
character of their science, show such great reluctance to reckon with the
substance of the observable world.  They much prefer to conceive the
explanatory value of science in terms of abstract laws -- equations,
rules, algorithms -- which naturally remain gratifyingly lawful in an
uncomplicated way.  The world disappears into a vague notion of "whatever
gives material reality to the laws".

But a willingness to consider this reality in its own terms immediately
reveals the impossibility of the all-explaining laws with which science
supposedly has to do.  We come to realize that a physical phenomenon and
its lawfulness must be considered as a unity -- a syntactic-semantic unity
of a sort that receives little recognition within science for the simple
reason that physical phenomena (as opposed to their "governing" syntax)
receive little recognition.

The Game Is Not Its Rules

If you doubt this tendency to disregard the world as meaningful content,
then listen to physicist Richard Feynman talking about the nature of
scientific understanding.  He asks us to imagine the world as "something
like a great chess game", and then suggests that "the rules of the
game are what we mean by fundamental physics .... If we know
the rules, we consider that we 'understand' the world" (Feynman, et al.
1963, p. 2-1).

But the formal rules tell us almost nothing about the real presence of
the world.  What convinces us otherwise (to stick with Feynman's metaphor)
is that, whether our science sanctions it or not, we picture real chess
pieces moving meaningfully on a real board.  Given this imagined reality,
we take satisfaction in how the rules "explain" what is going on with the
board and pieces.  It is easy to forget that the rules tell us nothing
about the board and pieces themselves, or how they will move, or the
strategies giving sense to the moves.  This is the missing content of
the rules -- what the rules are supposedly about -- but nothing in the rules
explains or dictates all this content of real games.

When Feynman compares the world to the rules of the game rather than to
the chessboard or the concrete activities associated with it, he leaves
the world's givenness and content out of the picture.  He makes the rules
alone -- a formalism -- the entire substance of science.

Games, of course, are yet another domain where we have learned to abstract
a relatively pure syntax (the rules of the game) from a larger and more
meaningful content.  And here, as elsewhere, it is not hard to see how
grotesquely wrongheaded it is to claim that the rules alone give us an
adequate explanation of the unfolding moves in an actual game.

It is not that there are no rules or that we should not be extremely clear
about them.  But the exact, unambiguous nature of the rules is not the
exact and unambiguous nature of chess pieces and chess strategies.  The
rules are implicit or immanent in the game, but what it means to be
immanent, unfortunately, is something most scientists have not yet begun
to consider.  This leaves their thinking about physical law sadly

Missing Content

More than one great physicist has glimpsed the emptiness resulting from a
one-sided preoccupation with the syntax of physical law.  We earlier heard
Feynman acknowledging that "in physics today, we have no knowledge of what
energy is" (1963, p. 4-1).  Einstein once remarked that

   As far as the propositions of mathematics refer to reality, they are
   not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to
   reality.  (1954, p. 233)

Here again the gap between clean, formal certainty and an uncertain
reality vexes our thoughts.  The physicist, Sir Arthur Eddington, was even
more direct when he wrote,

   [Our knowledge of physics] is only an empty shell -- a form of symbols.
   It is knowledge of structural form, and not knowledge of content.  All
   through the physical world runs that unknown content....  (1920, p.

A remarkable admission! -- yet scarcely puzzled over within science as a
whole.  And I suspect we can recognize the same admission underlying
Stephen Hawking's widely quoted remark:

   What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe
   for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a
   mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a
   universe for the model to describe .... Up to now scientists have been
   too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what
   the universe is to ask the question why. (1998, p. 190)

Hawking frames his question as if he were posing the problem of God and
the origin of things. He goes on to ask, "does it [the universe] need a
creator, and, if so does he have any other effect on the universe?" But
this is misleading. It's not true that equations describe what the
universe is; by themselves they have nothing to describe -- and what
constitutes something rather than nothing is the crucial problem for
science today. His puzzle concerning "why there should be a universe for
the model to describe" has less to do with the origin of the universe than
with the current substance and reality of the universe. The truth in
Hawking's words is that, so far as the equations are concerned, the
universe still remains to be "created".  They cannot give us Eddington's
"unknown content".

This is the problem I was alluding to in "The Limits of Predictability"
when I said that mathematics in its purely formal exactness tells us
almost nothing about the world.  We must bring it into relation with the
content of this world, and we can do this only insofar as we understand
the non-quantitative terms of the relation as well as the quantitative
ones.  It is just plain craziness to ignore the darkness in the key terms
of our science -- "force", "matter", "energy" -- and to claim that we
understand a phenomenon when we can't even say what it is in any language
with actual content.

Of course, to one degree or another we do frame our laws in a language
with content.  But in doing so we step outside the professed terms of our
hard science without offering any acknowledgment or justification of the
fact.  Meanwhile, in our view of the world and its lawfulness, we ignore
the practical necessities of our own science and continue mostly along the
old and tired track laid down by Laplace.

Our Laplacean Inheritance

But I hope by now we have gained a first inkling why the mere
multiplication of laws operating upon numerical data can never bring us to
an adequate explanation of the world and its phenomena.  If our ideal
syntactic constructs are intrinsically empty, then adding more and more of
them to our intellectual edifice does not get us a real building.  We
cannot by this means bridge the gap between formal, syntactic structure
and the content whose structure we would like to capture.

Once you recognize the kind of syntactic-semantic unity required to
describe anything in the world at all, you will find the nineteenth-
century deterministic faith unbearably foolish.  It was a faith in the
explanatory powers of pure syntax -- powers that begin to look very
different when they are discovered in the world rather than imposed
by our imaginations upon a world that has become (like our leaf in
the vacuum chamber) largely invisible to us.  Physicist Banesh Hoffman
describes that earlier faith this way:

   The mighty universe was controlled by known equations, its every motion
   theoretically predictable, its every action proceeding majestically by
   known laws from cause to effect.  (Quoted in Lukacs 1994, p. 275)

It should not require any special insight to realize that equations do not
control anything.  But while the view Hoffman describes is often derided
today, it continues to rule the scientific and technological imagination.
It is, for example, what makes it possible for MIT robotics guru, Rodney
Brooks, to say that we are "just molecules, positions, velocity, physics,
properties -- and nothing else" (quoted in Ullman 2002, p. 69).  This
conclusive "and nothing else" suggests that Brooks believes he would have
no problem telling us what "properties" are -- and that he could do so
with well-behaved numbers quite apart from any appeal to qualities, as if
the numbers alone could give us a world.  Well, let him go ahead and tell

Rather more ingenuously, Richard Feynman once confessed:

   It always bothers me that, according to the laws as we understand them
   today, it takes a computing machine an infinite number of logical
   operations to figure out what goes on in no matter how tiny a region of
   space, and no matter how tiny a region of time.  How can all that be
   going on in that tiny space?  Why should it take an infinite amount of
   logic to figure out what one tiny piece of space/time is going to do?

This unsettling infinity is just one more indication of the pregnant gap
between empty syntax and the content from which it was abstracted.  But
Feynman's response to the problem brings no promise of enlightenment.  In
the next sentence he writes:

   So I have often made the hypothesis that ultimately physics will not
   require a mathematical statement, that in the end the machinery will be
   revealed, and the laws will turn out to be simple, like the chequer
   board with all its apparent complexities.  (1967, pp. 57-8).

It is admirable for Feynman to turn his attention to the world he wishes
to describe.  But, bound by the nineteenth-century Laplacean mindset, he
can only imagine this world as "machinery" governed by the rules of a
simple game -- which leaves him no less trapped within syntactic emptiness
than the infinitely spun-out "logical operations" that bothered him to
begin with.

In a scientific and technological culture of such amazing sophistication,
one wonders how we could accept such utter vacuity at the center of our
understanding.  But, really, we don't.  Since we can't get by without a
world, we inevitably assume the qualitative and meaningful content missing
from our formal constructions.  But because we do not make our assumption
fully conscious or bring it under the discipline of our science, it
weaves a veil of illusion around us.  We imagine our formalisms to be
explanations when in fact they are only the ghosts of explanations.

Looking Ahead

We are at a critical point in this series of essays, although the point
has barely been introduced.  When you reckon with language in general or
scientific language in particular, and when you take it in its fullness
rather than pretending you can isolate its strictly formal aspect and use
that alone to describe the world, then you are dealing with qualities and
meaning.  And to the extent your language does indeed describe the world
and therefore possesses scientific value, you are dealing with qualities
and meaning in the world.

You are, in fact, dealing with formal causes in the ancient sense of the
term.  This older conception of cause points us toward the qualitative
form or meaningful patterns, the governing unity, according to which
phenomena unfold rather as a sentence with its particular words unfolds to
express an antecedent governing idea.  Such a meaning of "formal", of
course, is nearly opposite to the "formal" and "formalism" I have been
speaking of till now.

All this will require a great deal of further discussion.  What would a
science of formal causes -- a qualitative science -- actually look like?
What are some examples of formal causes?  If a valid science is
necessarily qualitative, we must see this fact reflected in all the
momentous accomplishments of our current science, even if the truth of the
matter remains unacknowledged.  Where do we see this truth?

So there is much still to be said.  But if you doubt the revolutionary
nature of the ideas set forth here, think for a moment about the following
claims that have been broached in the discussion so far:

** The world is not a machine in the strict sense required by
mechanistic thinking; not even "machines" are machines in this sense.
A mechanistic science has been driven inexorably toward a purely
algorithmic, logical-mathematical conception of machines because actually
existent machines, as real and substantial presences -- metallic, plastic,
and glassy -- do not yield themselves fully to mechanistic thought.  It is
much more convenient if we ignore the machine's substance and occupy
ourselves with convenient, well-behaved rules.  (See especially "The
Vanishing World-Machine in NF #151.)

** The world's phenomena are neither predictable nor explainable in
the sense required by mechanistic science.  We can in some sense find
mechanistically formulated laws within phenomena, but this is not at
all the same as predicting or explaining the phenomena themselves or
reducing them to mechanisms.  (See "The Limits of Predictability" in
NF #153, along with the current essay.)

** The only fully adequate causes we have are formal causes in the older
sense of this term -- qualitative causes given in the way a meaningful
unity or whole organically governs and manifests itself through its parts.
The cherished causes of today's science -- precise and unambiguously
stated "efficient" causes -- are what you get when you analyze formal
causes down to purely quantitative or logical statements stripped of
content.  Efficient causes are nothing but the ghosts of formal causes.
This idea, of course, has barely been introduced in the current essay.  A
great deal more remains to be said.

In the next essay I will try to consolidate the territory we have covered
so far.  We are ready to clarify a set of interrelated terms that till now
I've been using rather too casually -- for example, "mechanistic",
"deterministic", "reductionist".

Meanwhile, some of you may wish to entertain yourselves by considering the
relation between the foregoing ideas and those put forth by Stephen
Wolfram (  Wolfram's widely heralded
revolution aiming at "a new kind of science" amounts largely to taking the
existing one-sidedness of science and pushing it to a dead-end extreme.
If you doubt what I have said about the tendency within science to
substitute algorithms for the world, just spend a few minutes looking at
Wolfram's work.

What I have been arguing here comes close to being the exact opposite of
Wolfram's "revolution" -- and points, I would make bold to say, toward the
revolution he missed.


1. I discuss the polar relation between syntax and semantics at considerable
length in Talbott 1995.  Also see "How to Begin Thinking about Technology:
The Pursuit of Entangled Opposites" (Talbott 1999).

2. In this light, our strong urge to frame our physical laws in the form of universally applicable truths -- truths that therefore do not distinguish one thing from another -- becomes profoundly significant. These laws inevitably present us with a "semantic completeness problem" very different from the syntactic completeness problem that has so exercised mathematicians.

3. Henri Bortoft is very good on the wholeness of language -- and on wholeness in general, along with many other topics related to these essays. See Bortoft 1996.

4. I will add the following, although it carries us to a much later, epistemological part of the discussion. The objective world also has the character of an image. When our scientific thought and language give us an image truly revelatory of the world, this image is the world itself manifesting in our consciousness. Previous articles in this series: --------------------------------- Part 1 of this series, "Intelligence and Its Artifacts", in NF #148.
Part 2 of this series, "The Vanishing World-Machine", in NF #151.
Part 3 of this series, "The Limits of Predictability", in NF #153. Bibliography ------------ Bortoft, Henri (1996). The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Way toward a Science of Conscious Participation. Hudson NY: Lindisfarne. Eddington, Sir Arthur (1920). Space, Time, and Gravitation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Einstein, Albert (1954). Ideas and Opinions, transl. by Sonja Bargmann. New York: Crown Publishers. Feynman, Richard P., Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew Sands (1963). The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley. Feynman, Richard (1967). The Character of Physical Law. Cambridge MA: MIT Press. Hawking, Stephen (1998). A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam. Laplace, Pierre Simon (1951). A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, translated by Frederick Wilson Truscott and Frederick Lincoln Emory, with an introduction by E. T. Bell. New York: Dover. Lukacs, John (1994). Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past. New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Publishers. Talbott, Stephen L. (1995). "Can We Transcend Computation", chapter 23 in The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst. Sebastopol CA: O'Reilly and Associates. Available at Talbott, Stephen L. (1999). "How to Begin Thinking about Technology: The Pursuit of Entangled Opposites", NetFuture #84 (Feb. 9). Available at Ullman, Ellen (2002). "Programming the Post-Human", Harper's Magazine (October), pp. 60-70. Goto table of contents ========================================================================== CORRESPONDENCE Beyond ADHD Generalizations --------------------------- Response to: "On Treating Hyperactive Children with Drugs" (NF #154) From: Jon Johanning ( Dear Steve, As a general comment on the problem of over-diagnosis of ADHD, and the danger this poses for the school reform movement, your piece makes a number of valid points. However, as a parent of a boy diagnosed about five years ago with ADHD, who has made marked improvement on a drug regimen, I would like to point out that there are a lot of exceptions to your generalizations. His mother and I were quite surprised when he began to show an inability to function in his class-room in the sixth grade. I won't go into detail about his behavior, but it went far beyond the ordinary rambunctiousness of boyhood. He did eventually have to move from a regular classroom (which was far from an "educational factory," by the way -- it was staffed by very caring, professional people who spent a lot of effort relating to the kids as individuals) to a series of alternative schools for students who could not be accommodated in the standard school. Some of them might be considered by an outside observer as more "factory-like" and some less so, but the main point is that the better ones had staffs (teachers and counselors) who were specially skilled in helping such students learn. But I think he would not have been able to take advantage of their help without the medications (which were, by the way, not prescribed by mechanical script-writing M.D.s, but by equally skilled and caring professionals). But the principal problem I find with the kind of argument you make, which is common among leftist social commentators, is that, although it recognizes "the therapeutic use of behavior-modifying drugs in difficult cases," it makes it all too easy for outside observers to stigmatize parents such as my son's mother and I as reactionary opponents of school reform who are only looking for a quick, simple fix for our little inconveniences, and are just too busy to take the trouble for "the intense and deeply personal effort of the assessment" of "the unique capabilities and potentials of an individual student". When you don't know the individuals involved, the rule of thumb in progressive, leftist circles seems to be: "blame the parents and the 'system.'" I can assure you that, in a "difficult case" such as I believe my son was, the kid, her/his parents, teachers, therapists, and everyone else involved are very reluctant to take the medication route (not least because the effects of these drugs on the developing child's brain are not completely known as yet), but the fact is that sometimes the brain circuits, for some reason not yet understood, just need some chemical jolts to re-wire themselves (of course, I am using a crude metaphor, but I think it points to a fact). You write: "Drugs short-circuit this learning process by acting directly on the body, thereby separating achievement from the effort of achieving. This raises the question whether we are looking for the mere outward, behavioral result, or instead for the inner shaping of character that can only be learned". Yes, that is often true, but it is also often true that without some sort of "direct action on the body," the "inner shaping of character" is practically impossible to achieve, because the parents and teachers are locked in a constant struggle with a hostile, often violent kid who just can't be related to on this beautiful character-shaping level. Another problem with this progressive rule of thumb is that, while we are waiting for the long, frustrating process of changing the system to reach completion, the kids who are suffering real problems just have to keep suffering, apparently. That is, unless their parents don't mind being attacked as know-nothing opponents of social change. Your example of the broken bone seems to me to imply that a "mere mechanical fix" is really not all that important. As it happened, this same boy broke his leg a few years before his educational problems developed. We certainly did not wait for the U.S. medical system, with all its many well known problems, to be completely fixed before we got him to the emergency room. We went for the mere mechanical fix immediately, and let the challenge to his individual development (which I am sure happened even after the cast was applied) take care of itself. I doubt, if you had a child with a broken bone, you would act any differently. Best regards, Jon Johanning I Am an Adult Taking Ritalin ---------------------------- Response to: "On Treating Hyperactive Children with Drugs" (NF #154) From: Hanan Cohen ( Shalom Steve, I am 41 and I am taking Ritalin. Until I was thirty-nine I didn't know I had ADHD. My life was miserable and hard in many respects. I went through psychological therapists who didn't diagnose me correctly. Then, two years ago, my cousin who is an educational consultant and mother to a child with ADHD, gave me a book about adults with ADHD. In reading the book I suddenly understood what my problem was. I was then diagnosed by a psychiatrist and given a Ritalin prescription. This made me happy in two respects. First, I found an answer to a question I had agonized over since childhood. Second, Ritalin really helps me do what I want to do. Ritalin broadens my creative potential and my social skills. People tend to sort things into Bad/Good. Ritalin is getting more and more BAD which will deter people from taking it even if they really need it. All the best, Hanan Cohen Goto table of contents ========================================================================== ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER Copyright 2004 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached. NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not survive without them. For details and special offers, see . Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web: To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture: This issue of NetFuture: Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #155 :: March 16, 2004

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