On Forcing Perception to Fit Preconception
MYSTICISM VERSUS RATIONALITY...
Preface: This post is dedicated to Gerald Hecht, who has shown himself to be not only a paradigm of the "Mad Scientist", but someone of intellectual courage and integrity, who cares deeply for the true values of science and academic activity.
Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.Internet-based social media has great potential for advancing the cause of connecting all humanity into a worldwide forum for intellectual exchange.
Richard Feynman, Nobel-prize-winning physicist
However, one of the things that concerns me about social media is that it is a forum which exhibits a propensity for people to take reasonable ideas and extend and embellish them in irrational ways. Because the prevailing etiquette on social media discourages overt disagreement, there is, to my mind, scant in the way of natural checks and balances within the burgeoning cloud of ideas and views, now so readily available for reading. And this presents a real danger that social media will lead a reversion to a modern day variant of medieval irrationality.
That which follows is a semi-serious discussion about what I submit is a serious issue. If you are up for this type of discussion, then I am more than delighted to have you read and join the conversation, which I hope will be occasioned by this piece. But if you believe in the frequently-repeated social media dictum that, "If you can't say something good, don't say anything at all...", please feel free not to waste your time or mine --- just turn the page.
For I will be questioning a number of baldfaced pronouncements that have been appearing on this platform recently. And I prefer not to cause you discomfort.
The criterion which we use to test the genuineness of apparent statements of fact is the criterion of verifiability...A.J.Ayer in "Language, Truth and Logic" (1936)
The cornerstone of scientific investigation and discovery is the postulation of theory to explain and predict phenomena that we observe in the world of our perceptions.
Often, such explanation and prediction are not possible without positing factors (existence) not directly available to perception.
For example, atomic theory posits the interaction of particles and energy that we can't see, in order to explain and predict (and manipulate) that which we can see. We can perceive the heat energy released by a controlled atomic reaction, and harness that heat via steam-driven turbines to create electricity.
But make no mistake, although we can perceive the effects, for instance, of an atomic reaction, we do not see the reaction itself. We infer it and its nature via the mediation of the best and currently most accepted theory or theories in atomic physics.
A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific... Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or refute it...Karl Popper in "Science As Falsification" (1963)
Confidence in the truth of our scientific theories is based on their level of repeated success in either predicting or "post-dicting" the events which are amenable to our direct perception, that is, events in the observable world.
This is not to say that everything directly observed in our world has been explained by scientific theory, nor to say that everything even could be so explained.
Science may or may not ultimately be able to explain "everything". However, if an explanation is to be considered scientific, it has to meet specific criteria, one of which is verifiability.
Otherwise the explanation at hand falls within the realm of mysticism --- that is, acceptance based on faith and non-rational commitment.
Mysticism is popularly known as becoming one with God or the Absolute, but may also ... refer to the attainment of insight in ultimate or hidden truths ...Wikipedia in "Mysticism"
Understand that I am not here arguing against the validity of mystical insight or revelation. I am simply and specifically pointing out that mysticism is not science, and that mystical "truths" are not scientific "facts" or theories, and should not be confused with them.
Unfortunately, on social media, such confusion is often fomented, especially when mystical pronouncements are made by professed scientists and academics.
Sometimes this confusion is inadvertent, but sometimes I suspect it is intentional. Either way, I submit that those of us who understand that difference, or at least should understand it, have a responsibility to the social community to work to keep the game "honest".
That said, it's important to recognize that a new anti-rational, anti-science movement has been building on social media.
Telltale signs of non-rational mysticism centered around fractals, masquerading as rational statement include 1) propositions about the universal presence and importance of fractals in the physical organization of the world, without explanation or supported example; 2) assertions about the potential for reorganizing society fractally, without supporting detail or data; and 3) slogans that are clearly intended to mimic an emotion-based team-building environment. None of which is rational or scientific.
If you've followed the discussion to this point, you understand that the bulk of modern scientific theories deal with reality at a level of existence that we do not directly perceive. You also understand that we test and verify these theories in accord with how well they explain and enable us to account for and manipulate the world at that level of existence which can be perceived and which is directly observable.
Enter that which I call the Movement for Perceptual Spin, or MFPS...
As I see it, those who employ MFPS seek to provide what is essentially mysticism with the trappings and aura of science. And in the atmosphere of uncritical thought and comment nurtured on social media --- itself so pervasively accepted as a medium of intellectual exchange --- MFPS constitutes a potentially serious attack on Rationality and Science.
How does MFPS seek to accomplish its innate objective(s)? By forcing perception to fit preconception.
A prime example of trying to force perception to fit preconception is the claim I keep seeing that trees exemplify fractal structure. As I've written elsewhere in "On Trees, Trolls, Trust and Truth", for long time, I was completely baffled by this claim. For when I look at many trees, I do not "see" the mathematical regularity embodied by fractals.
Fractal - noun frac·tal \ˈfrak-təl\ : any of various extremely irregular curves or shapes for which any suitably chosen part is similar in shape to a given larger or smaller part when magnified or reduced to the same size...Merriam-Webster Dictionary
My confusion was not limited to trees. There are those who assert that fractal mathematics and fractals in nature s are keys to developing a "Theory of Everything" --- in other words, a potential hook into a unified theory of the universe.
But I couldn't see from where these claims came. At least I didn't, until I started to chase the origin of what I consider to be a prima facie ridiculous claim that "trees" universally exhibit fractality. More on that in a while.
The origins of fractal geometry trace back back to renown mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot (1924 - 2010), and a number of progenitors in the prior century. And it is a fact that Mandelbrot Mandelbrot was among the very first to employ computer graphics to create and display fractal geometrical images, demonstrating how visual complexity can be created from simple rules.
For what it is worth, I get that. What I don't get is all the talk about trees and fractality being the basis for a Theory of Everything, even if we take note of the belief that fractal mathematics can be employed to advantage in Chaos Theory, which seeks to find patterns of organization in apparently chaotic phenomena. And by the way, I am not alone in that.
In an article cited by Milos Djukic during an exchange between him and me, author David Auerbach summarizes the situation:
At its worst, complexity theory spills into mysticism about the hidden universal patterns of nature and society, which has sometimes made the field an unfortunate handmaiden to both postmodern jargon and business doublespeak ...
David Auerbach in Slate
Okay, let's get back to the question of where wacky-do claims about fractality come from.
A brief and far from exhaustive internet search leads to an organization based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which calls itself the Fractal Foundation. This organization appears to have some academics attached to it as directors and board members. And its mission appears to be to draw educational institutions into using studies of fractals and fractal geometry in their science and math courses.
None of the information on the site is really clear, and the statements to be found there are a mixture of accuracy and what I see as wrongheadedness. In the latter category, there is the statement that,
"Natural fractals include branching patterns like trees, river networks, lightning bolts, blood vessels, etc, and spiral patterns like sea shells, hurricanes, and galaxies." ("Where Do We Find Fractals?")
Branching patterns? Really? River networks? Really? Galaxies? You really have to be kidding.
Look at the photo immediately below. The leaves of the fern shown in the middle display a fractal pattern. That is to say, each leaf is itself made up of a sub-leaf (if that is the correct term, which it may not be) that is the same shape as the parent.
However, the same cannot be said for the branches of the trees shown at each end. To be sure they branch. But at different intervals. And in different directions. And in different shapes.
Remember fractality is not simply organization, nor even organization in a repeating pattern. But rather systematic organization in a curve or geometric figure, each part of which has the same mathematical character as the whole.
Do the people who make these assertions about fractals in nature ever actually look around themselves? In fact, I suspect they do. And that brings me to the the main point of this post.
Mystical certitude --- true faith, if you will --- is difficult for most people to achieve. They cannot make the Kierkegaard's "leap of faith".
Consequently, in the absence of rational questioning and scientific searching for disconfirmation, mysticism --- which involves an a priori commitment to a given propostion --- filters and rearranges perception to fit its preconception. Which is, I submit, why some people perceive fractility in nature where it is not. And why they begin to think it must be an organizing principle that underlies everything.
If you doubt this, consider the image of the Banyan tree at the very beginning of this post. It appears to be pretty well organized along fractal lines. And so you might accept your perception of it as evidence of fractility in nature.
But look again. It's actually a Bonsai that has been carefully pruned and trained to grow in such a regular pattern, as you will realize from the following photo.
Perception forced to fit preconception. --- Phil Friedman
Some suggested further reading:
"The Fractal Revolution in Society, Social Media First" by Milos Djukic
"Surely, You Jest" by Phil Friedman
"Shirley There Will Bee a Test" by Gerald Hecht
"On Trees,Trolls,Truth and Trust" by Phil Friedman
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About me, Phil Friedman: With 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn numerous hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I am also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation.
In a previous life, I was formally trained as an academic philosopher and taught logic and philosophy at university.
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Image Credits: Phil Friedman and GoogleImages.com
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