December 13, 2002
The three cultures

Wired is carrying an article in the december issue about something billed asThe New Convergence. It's mainly there because of the holidays, one would think, and it's about what is billed as the reemergence of faith in the sciences. Not in a 'backlash against rationalism' kind of way even though that is certainly en vogue these days, but more as a restatement of the belief that not everything can be proven by science, and at the very ends of science faith comes in and grounds our thinking.

This is hardly news. If you like to think about Really Big Questions you've never been far from the idea since all attempts at avoding the ends of rationalism by applying more rationalism invariably ends in infinite arguments or ridiculous arguments pulled out of a hat to avoid the infinte argument.
A prominent flawed attempt at avoiding belief and the irrational is Roger Penrose's invocation of quantum theory to explain consciousness, since he can't help but feel there's something lacking in all the rational explanations he is able to give, and couldn't possibly accept not to have a rational explanation of consciousness.

The whole discussion reminds me of 'The two cultures' - C.P. Snows famous essay about the rift between the humane and the natural sciences. I guess faith comes into play here as a third culture all its own.

I'm very fond of a naive if hard to understand statement of my own making: 'The hereafter is the compactification of the infinite'.
To explain : In mathematics a compact set is a set that is finite in a very particular way which for the real numbers roughly translate to sets contained in finite intervals (If you're a mathematican you know I'm way off and need to talk about closed sets but that is not really important here).
Obviously the real numbers aren't compact by this definition, but to make them easier to work with one often inserts a special 'infinite point' bigger than all real numbers, so that the interval from 0 to this infinte point is actually compact. This lets you argue about the real numbers as if they were compact. Doing so is called a compactification.

What has this got to do with faith? Well, not so much, but it has got something to do with morals.
There's an idea in economics called the prisoners dilemma. Imagine two criminals, partners in crime, both caught by police. If none of them give each other up they walk. If one gives the other up, the one who gives the other up may get some limited sentence say 1 year , but the he can cut a deal whereas the other will get 10 years. But if both give each other up they both get 5 years. Tax payments are the same by the way: If everybody pays you don't have to pay much. If you can get off without paying and everybody else pays, you're on easy street. But if nobody pays there are no mutual benefits.
What's interesting about the prisoners dilemma is that while we can all see that it would be best for both parties if they said nothing, the uncertainty about the other guys behaviour means that the only rational thing to do is to give him up, so the prisoners both rat on the other guy.
This has troubled economists, because if this is so, how did economic cooperation ever begin.
Of course this applies to non-economic transactions also, why be a good guy if you won't suffer any consequences from your behaviour.
The solution lies in the fact that we play many such games with each other, and if you have to face the other guy in the same game tomorrow it does make sense to cooperate as long as he does.
You can continue this argument, so that if you have an infinite number of games to play, it will not pay to defect. But if you only have a finite number of games the argument doesn't work Surely in the last game you might as well defect, and if the other guy's going to defect next game, you might as well get a head start and defect right now, etc. etc.
And that's where the hereafter comes in. It establishes the infinite replay, or at least the indefinite replay as a concrete thing, and thus it grounds our arguments about infinte consequences in something concrete. It is the compactification of the infinite.
The interesting thing, and the reason why my original statement has any interest at all, is that if you believe in the hereafter your choice to be good is not a question of faith, it is just the rational thing to do, and darwinian creaturs that we are we tend to do rational things to stay alive. So if you stretch it a little you actually have here a darwinian argument for the emergence of morals.

So what has this got to do with faith and science. Well personally I believe that faith plays the same role with respect to rationalism that the hereafter plays with respect to morals. It is simply a stopgap measure to fill in the blanks. I like to think of this as a Kantian point of view: We see the world with the eyes that are available to us, in the logical forms available to us. Making rational arguments about things we cannot rationally perceive is futile. That this should come as groundbreaking news, seems strange to me.

The flip-side of the argument is that science always and without fail will push our morals in front of it. Our morals cannot exist as beliefs that are not affected by new rational insight. Beliefs have no place where there is knowledge. And if you think that makes me a bio-ethics hardliner ( cloning is inevitable etc. etc.) you're probably right.

Posted by Claus at December 13, 2002 12:18 AM
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