A confused professor emphasizes the so-called limits of scientific understanding

While we’re waiting for Dr. Pinkah to produce his next book on how science can enrich the humanities, the enemies of reason and the touters of faith continue hawking their numinous wares in the intellectual market. So when you see an essay with this title, “The limits of intellectual reason in our understanding of the natural world,” you’re going to be wary. After all, how else can we understand the natural world except by reason and observation—what I call “science broadly construed”?

It gets worse when you realize that this piece, which does indeed denigrate reason at the expense of faith, not only appears at a reputable website, The Conversation, but was written by a reputable professor at a reputable university: Andrew J. Hoffman, the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan (he also has joint appointments at the School of Natural Resources & Environment and the Ross School of Business). The essay is apparently a precis of Hoffman’s recent book, Finding Purpose – Environmental Stewardship as a Personal Calling.

What is his thesis? That the world is in ecological trouble, and we can’t fix it with science alone. Science is too blunt an instrument to help cure Earth’s ills, and scientists have to be humble—always a red-flag word, urged on scientists by non-humble theologians. We must recognize that we must be sensitive to, and incorporate, people’s faith into our policies. We also need to deal with things that (according to Hoffman) are beyond science’s ambit, like our love of beauty. But Hoffman fails miserably in the end, for he doesn’t show any way that this kind of “faith” should substantially affect our policies.

The good professor gets off to a very bad start:

For example, scientific reason relies on data and analysis, and yet there is much in this world that cannot be measured; one cannot provide data that proves that love for another human being, a spiritual connection with the natural world, a sense of calling of vocation or the presence of God all exist. And yet, a great many people believe – or even know – that these exist.

Scientific reason also seeks to understand the natural world by breaking it down into individual parts. But it is the integrity of the whole that matters, what Rachel Carson called the “web of life.”

Finally, scientific reason seeks to explain all phenomena through words and numbers. And yet there are many experiences that defy articulation; classical pianists or professional athletes often have great difficulty verbalizing the essence of their experience when they are perfecting their craft.

So, while science can continue to advance in exploring the rational in nature, by analyzing natural systems through “big data” models using feedback loops, time delays, accumulations and nonlinearities that operate within them, it must also leave room for the mysterious and unexplainable, exercising a humility that it does not and may never know its full complexities.

In fact, all the phenomena that Hoffman claims cannot be measured, such as love, are emotions, and emotions represent brain states. While we’re not yet at the stage where we can measure the underlying neural basis of emotions, we can generate some of them, by injecting oxytocin, testosterone, or other chemicals. Some day we will be able to scientifically understand love, although we’re getting there.

As for stuff like “the presence of God”, yes, some people believe that the numinous exists. But they don’t “know” that—not using any reasonable definition of the word “know.” Likewise with pianists and athletes: we don’t understand why some composers or performers have a natural talent or keen musical acumen, but that doesn’t mean that this stuff, like athletic ability, is beyond the ken of science. Hoffman is simply placing outside the limits of science things that science doesn’t yet understand—and thereby makes the implicit claim that these things are forever beyond understanding.

As for “the integrity of the whole that matters,” that’s not always the case, of course, for in some cases it’s individual parts (like rising levels of greenhouse gas) that can ruin a whole, and if we reduce those, the whole will survive.  To imply that the whole somehow transcends its parts, or is more than the joint effect of its parts, is simply to blather nonsense. In science wholes are always consistent with their parts, even when they show emergent properties that cannot (yet) be predicted from their parts.

Here’s where Hoffman really exposes his ignorance of science:

Just as we cannot state with certainty that cigarettes will cause any one individual to get cancer given the complexities of the human body, so too are we limited in our ability to predict the impact of our actions on the natural environment. The 1964 surgeon general’s report actually states that “statistical methods cannot establish proof of a causal relationship in an association [between cigarette smoking and lung cancer]. The causal significance of an association is a matter of judgment which goes beyond any statement of statistical probability.“ The protection of the natural world must also be a matter of judgment, based on both faith and reason.

Predictability is not the same as physical indeterminacy, as all readers should know by now. But to claim that we don’t know for sure that cigarettes don’t cause cancer (based on a correlation), neglects the ways in which this can be tested: eliminating other putative variables, looking at the effect of smoke inhalation on laboratory animals, and so on. It is established beyond reasonable doubt that smoking cigarettes does cause cancer in some individuals who would not be afflicted were they not to smoke. This meets the vernacular definition of “proof”: evidence so strong you’d bet your house on it.

I’m not sure what Hoffman means by saying “the protection of the natural world must also be a matter of judgment, based on both faith and reason.” Where’s the “faith” in there? Yes, we have to make subjective judgments about what we want to save (for global warming, humanity is one thing we want to preserve!), but that is not really about “faith.” And once we decide what we want to accomplish, the rest is science—as well as will and politics. “Faith” is not the same thing as saying, “I prefer that we save pandas over jaguars”, for faith is belief in a fact that is largely unsupported by evidence, while subjective preference is just that: a preference and not assertion of a fact.

Hoffman then goes on to claim that science is not adequate to understand the natural world:

. . . we need to recognize that the scientific method that was essential to the Enlightenment is no longer fully adequate to understand the natural world and our impact upon it.

More specifically, we need to recognize that a scientifically derived understanding as our only understanding of the environment leads to a utilitarian and mechanistic awareness of the natural world. That framing leads to many of the pathologies we now face: behaviors that lead to climate change, water scarcity and species extinction on a massive scale – and hampers our ability to appreciate – and therefore protect – nature for reasons that go beyond the limits of our understanding.

In the Anthropocene, we have become, in the words of Stephen Jay Gould, “the stewards of life’s continuity on Earth. We did not ask for this role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited to it, but here we are.” To play this role properly requires a deeper reverence and respect for what we do not know or understand.

Again, Dr. Hoffman, what are we supposed to do? How will the reverence before our ignorance help us save the world? What else do we have beyond empirical evidence, and trial-and-error solutions—that is, science—to deal with climate change, extinction, and the scarcity of water? Again, we have to figure out what we want to save, and to justify that as best we can, but what kind of “reverence and respect” will guide us here? Can we let much of the rainforest vanish, along with its attendant species, to allow our species to expand? How much salt water do we want to tolerate in the Everglades? Those are subjective decisions, but rest on empirical knowledge of the consequences. There is no “faith” involved.

And look at Hoffman’s science-blaming: he says that science’s “utilitarian and mechanistic awareness of the natural world” has actually led to global warming and species extinction!  What kind of nonsense is that? Dr. Hoffman, it seems, is one of those humanities people who holds science responsible for today’s ills. But his own discipline has no solution.

I can’t resist quoting a few more examples of inanity in this piece. Under the subheading “Honoring the mystical in nature,” Hoffman subsumes not the mystical, but curious findings of science, including the unexpected discovery that wolves introduced into Yellowstone National Park actually stabilized riverbanks by reducing the population of grazers who eroded the banks, and the recent suggestion that foxes may use the Earth’s magnetic field to home in on rodent prey beneath the snow.  What is the lesson? Not that this stuff is mystical, but simply that we don’t know everything: “These examples, and many more, remind us that, for every advance in our understanding of nature, we can only marvel that there is ever more that we do not know.”  No, it really doesn’t work that way. Every time we understand something like fox homing better, there is less stuff that we do not know. More questions may arise, but science only deepens and improves our understanding of nature. If you read Hoffman literally, you’d think that science not only impedes progress and ruins the environment, but actually makes us more ignorant!

In the end, Hoffman proffers two quotations that, he thinks, buttresses his thesis. The first is from Rachel Carson:

Rachel Carson eloquently captured this idea [“there is ever more that we do no know”]:

Contemplating the teeming life of the shore, we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp. What is the message signaled by the hordes of diatoms, flashing their microscopic lights in the night sea? What truth is expressed by the legions of barnacles, whitening the rocks with their habitations, each small creature finding the necessities of its existence in the sweep of the surf? And what is the meaning of so tiny a being as the transparent wisp of protoplasm that is a sea lace, existing for some reason inscrutable to us — a reason that demands its presence by a trillion amid the rocks and weeds of the shore? The meaning haunts and ever eludes us, and in its very pursuit, we approach the ultimate mystery of Life itself.

With all due respect to Carson’s great writing and the environmental awareness she promoted, there is no message signaled by diatoms and barnacles, no reason beyond natural selection and evolution why animals exist. There is no “ultimate mystery of Life itself,” unless you’re talking about how it originated, and that’s a proximate rather than an ultimate mystery. Nor is that what Carson is talking about. The passage above is simply trying to infuse the numinous into nature, where, I’m afraid to say, there is nothing numinous. Looking for the Ultimate Mystery of Life Itself is a useless endeavor based on a meaningless supposition.

Finally, Hoffman gets in one last blow against scientists, whom he seems to regard as calculating automatons without emotion. Does the man know any scientists?

But scientific reason has limited capacity for considerations beyond the rational and utilitarian, and this diminishes science’s influence by distancing its conclusions from the general public. To many, scientists are seen as a class of people who “privilege the rational over the intuitive or spiritual, separate fact from values and emotions, and act contrary to religious beliefs about the ‘natural’ order of things,” as historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in his 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning book.

Umm. . . first of all, American’s respect science and scientists, at least until we find out stuff (e.g., evolution, anthropogenic global warming) that conflicts with their religion or with their economic well being. Insofar as we act “contrary to religious beliefs about the ‘natural’ order of things,” what are we supposed to do about that? Should I stop studying evolution? Should I tell people that science really is consonant with everyone’s faith—a palpable lie? Do we really lack emotions and values? Should we start crying more often to show we’re human?

What we have in Hoffman’s essay is just a science-hater trying to argue that science isn’t the best way to approach solving environmental problems. Of course we need to take into account people’s emotions and subjective judgments, as well as subjective ethics (I believe all ethics is subjective, based on non-objective preferences); but what Hoffman offers is simply genuflecting toward religion and the Great Mysteries That We Can’t Fathom. Here’s his last paragraph:

To fully appreciate the complexities of nature and reach more people in explaining them, academics and scientists must approach study of the natural world with the strength of data and models, a humility of their limitations, an awareness of the unintended consequences they so often create and a recognition of the emotional, cultural, ethical and spiritual perspectives on the world. In short, it requires scientists to not only be smart, but also be wise.

Well, that sounds good, but aren’t we doing that already? Hoffman is simply a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the page and then is heard no more. His essay is a tale told by a faith-coddler, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

h/t: Howie


  1. Kevin
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Let’s stop the cows, hold the cake, and clear the way for butterflies and children’s laughter. Science has obviously run its course and is just dead mud.

    I am reminded of a brilliant mind (Von Neumann) who once said: “There probably is a God. Many things are easier to explain if there is than if there isn’t.” As brilliant as he was it is clear how someone can be deceived by god of the gaps. Putting stamps of metaphysics in places where there are unsolved problems is has never been a solution.

    • Filippo
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 9:41 pm | Permalink


  2. DrBrydon
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    “. . . we need to recognize that the scientific method that was essential to the Enlightenment is no longer fully adequate to understand the natural world and our impact upon it.”

    I suspect Hoffman meant to say that scientific method “was never adequate,” otherwise he needs to explain why it is now failing us. I am at a loss to understand how faith would help us understand water scarcity any better than “utilitarian and mechanistic awareness of the natural world” would, let alone eliminate it. I suspect what the good professor is really trying to say is that we don’t care enough, so we need to engage the emotional side.

    • rickflick
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

      Sciences cautionary take on global warming began at least as early as the 1940’s. Warnings were sounded by scientists and others ever since the description of the greenhouse effect and the correlation with CO2. Society as a whole ignored the warning for 50 years, until it became too hot to ignore. I think a point can be made that we need to get politics better in line with scientific understanding, but forget the gobbledygook about God’s role in all this. The answer is, improved schooling and public awareness of scientific knowledge. Maybe that’s what Dr. Hoffman meant. I actually don’t think he made himself clear on that.

  3. somer
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I used to read the Conversation – an Australian website. It is online contributions of academics to the public discourse and accepts comments – but I found from the beginning that it tends to be heavily oriented to academics with a – to my mind – regressive left or anti modern viewpoint. I never commented on it and after a while had had enough bodily enemas from it. On some of the articles also the comments have to be seen to be believed although occasionally you get a science type or science background person trying to bring light. Id rather not go into details of articles I found particularly irritating because it probably causes trouble for all concerned but theres plenty of food for regressive thought in too many of the articles.

  4. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Oh good, another essay that confuses people about science.

    Theologians, ruining for everyone since the rise of the genus homo.

  5. Posted June 10, 2016 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Environmentalists who are science-hostile really bug me, because they are hostile to the only thing which will get us *out* (alive) of all the very real problems they identify. (Well, with the technologies that are eventually made from the findings, that is.) So many things (like our macroeconomic systems) were made as *craft*, not technology, and it shows.

    • Dominic
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Yes! While I support many environmental groups, broadly, it annoys me when they are ant-GM for example based on opinion not science. We don’t vote evidence…

  6. Dominic
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Defying articulation? that only proves that language is inadequate, not science!

    • steve oberski
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Or that particular person’s grasp of language was inadequate.

      • darrelle
        Posted June 10, 2016 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

        My first thought as well.

        I struggle with finding words to adequately relate my thoughts, but I am well aware that many other people are much better at it than I! Professor Hoffman should broaden his reading horizons.

  7. Heather Hastie
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Excellent takedown Jerry. Professor Hoffman’s thesis is a load of rubbish and this analysis shows why. His thesis basically says that because science hasn’t worked out everything yet, it has failed, and we need to rely on God or other nebulous crap instead. That is flawed reasoning.

    I also want to point out that not all of us trained in the humanities think this way. Jerry hasn’t made that assumption, and I hope others won’t either.

    • somer
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:13 pm | Permalink


    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      I know I defend the Humanities a lot but what I did see there was a lack of understanding of how science works that is at about the same level as the general public. At the same time, there is a lack of understanding of how the Humanities works among science and engineering. I blame universities’ siloed structures for this. Interdepartmental cooperation is a huge feat.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted June 10, 2016 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

        We have to defend humanities I think because there are so many putting us in a bad light. It’s great training for lots of things. Like so much, it’s how that training is used that’s the issue. There’s the canard that science can be used for evil like creating gas for gas chambers, and similarly the humanities can give you the ability to make a convincing argument for really bad stuff like eugenics. Neither makes science or humanities bad.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted June 10, 2016 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

        It’s a dreadful piece; what puzzles me, though, is that you would have thought that a man who has the title of Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan and who has joint appointments at the School of Natural Resources & Environment and the Ross School of Business would either be some sort of scientist or would be conversant, at least to a degree, with how science works, since he would need to know some science to pursue his subject. I do not see what the man’s thesis has to do with the Humanities. He comes across as a sentimental businessman who has been give a position in academia because ‘business’, it is thought, should be shown a proper respect and business studies accorded recognition as an academic subject.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted June 11, 2016 at 7:41 am | Permalink

          Yeah, you’d think but business is populated with lots of people who have no idea about anything but business so he’d still be able to thrive there.

        • rskurat
          Posted June 11, 2016 at 8:25 am | Permalink

          Engineer. They’re very highly trained technicians, really – not scientists, not deep thinkers.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted June 11, 2016 at 10:33 am | Permalink

            If you think there are no engineers among the regular commenters here, you’re mistaken.

            • rskurat
              Posted June 12, 2016 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

              Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound dismissive, which upon re-reading I see this sounds like I’m doing.

              I’m a nurse practitioner, a role that I see as also being that of a very highly trained technician; I work with many doctors, most of whom fall into the same category of very highly trained technicians.

              My point really was that to expect someone with a doctorate in Civil & Environmental Engineering to have any worthwhile observations on the limits of scientific understanding (something Popper spent LOTS of time on) is simply delusional.

              A scientist with some background in philosophy or a philosopher with some background in science is the go-to person for insights on this. I do know of some engineers, nurses, and doctors (eg Atul Gawande) who genuinely are deep thinkers, but Hoffman isn’t one.

          • Posted June 11, 2016 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

            Neither engineers nor professional scientists are necessarily immune from faulty thinking, neither are either of them necessarily prone to faulty thinking.

            • rskurat
              Posted June 12, 2016 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

              This is less an example of faulty thinking than an example of hand-waving and wishful thinking. I think what I was getting was that Hoffman’s simply unqualified, on the evidence of the essay alone, to discuss this topic.

              Indeed there are no professions that are especially immune from or prone to flawed arguments, but philosophy of science is most often best discussed by philosophers or scientists.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted June 12, 2016 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

                I think it’s best discussed by anyone with something interesting and intelligent to say about it. If Hoffman is not in that category (and I agree that he isn’t), it’s because he hasn’t thought hard enough about it, not because he lacks formal qualifications.

              • rskurat
                Posted June 12, 2016 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

                Credentialism isn’t what I was suggesting, and yes it’s the content of the writing that’s the ultimate arbiter of its value.

    • darrelle
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      Professor’s Hoffman’s views on science are very cliche. I really think that much of this, i.e. not just in Hoffman’s case, has to do with validating one’s own value.

      A real irony is that there is no need at all to fool yourself about(or let yourself be fooled about, or knowingly misrepresent) science in order to validate your ability to contribute to society armed with a humanities education. A quick look around reveals that a humanities education can enable people to make enormous positive, important contributions to society.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted June 10, 2016 at 7:59 pm | Permalink


  8. bric
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    . . . a spiritual connection with the natural world . . . if only we had listened to the wise druids

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted June 11, 2016 at 3:43 am | Permalink

      Q: How many spiritual people does it take to change a lightbulb?

      A: None – science isn’t the best way to approach solving environmental problems.

  9. Dominic
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    By the way, I have yet to get it but E.O. Wilson says in his new book we should preserve half the world as wildlife reserves http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/01/science/e-o-wilson-half-earth-biodiversity.html?_r=0

    • somer
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      I’m being facetious here – but if God or some great Spirit wants us to really look after the earth he/she should immediately change all of us into earthworms.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted June 10, 2016 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

        One could also insist on interment rather than cremation…

        • somer
          Posted June 11, 2016 at 4:24 am | Permalink

          It helps, but what about the propagation of the non earthworm species in the meantime?

          • somer
            Posted June 11, 2016 at 4:25 am | Permalink


            • Tim Harris
              Posted June 11, 2016 at 5:05 am | Permalink

              I suspect I was too cryptic, get interred after death and you’ll be changed into earthworms, among other things, anyway, and without too much pain and trouble or sudden divine shocks.

  10. Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  11. Gimmepaws
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I’ll keep waiting for the book from the Friends of Skygod Association about the limits OF THEIR OWN thinking.
    And waiting.
    And waiting.

    • Ben
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      Mr. Hoffman’s misappropriation and misuse of the quotation from Richard Hofstadter “privilege the rational over the intuitive or spiritual …” out of context is scholarly and undermines everything else in this piece. Hofstadter was writing to describe the anti-intellectual propensity of primitivists and paranoids in American politics who are driven by irrational fear,and emotion to reject science. He would have been one of the first to oppose simple-minded, moralistic views like those expressed by Mr. Hoffman.

  12. ploubere
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    My guess is that Professor Hoffman is angling for a Templeton grant.

  13. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Hoffman’s essay would still have serious fallacies, but be mildly improved if he dropped the word “faith” and instead used “moral values”.

    Nonetheless, he still confuses the scientific mentality with the mechanistic/utilitarian one. But the problem with utilitarianism is that it is short-sighted in its goals, lacking in the longer view, not that it is scientific per se.
    (Not to mention that as originally formulated by John Stuart Mill, utilitarianism is a noble secular philosophy.)

    This author’s beloved Rachel Carson reached her conclusions about pesticides as published in “The Silent Spring” through rigorous scientific enquiry, which is precisely an important part of what is required for any ‘green’ movement to be effective.

    And it is alarming that American environmentalism has an invisible rift within it between folks who are well-grounded in biological and other Western sciences and folks who are hostile to science generally. (There is a similar invisible rift in American Buddhism which is a matter for another discussion.)

    (For a scary example, See Penn and Teller’s successful circulation at an Earth Day event of a petition to remove the chemical H2O from all our foods!!!)

    From the point of view of folks who want to have spiritual perspective about these things, Carson’s concept of the “interdependent web of life” may be useful, but it is one that has replaced the medieval notion of the “great chain of being” precisely because it is better rooted-in/synchronized-with the results of modern rigorous scientific enquiry than is the medieval great chain of being (or any of the stuff produced by Deepak Chopra)!!!

    In Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact”, someone says
    “It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon, there’s a couple lying naked in bed reading Encyclopediea Brittannica to each other, and arguing about whether the Andromeda Galaxy is more ‘numinous’ than the Ressurection. Do they know how to have a good time, or don’t they?”

  14. Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Be humble you arrogant pricks, like I am.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 11:05 pm | Permalink


  15. Christopher Bonds
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    The author’s interpretation of the opening quote by Aldo Leopold starts the ball rolling. It’s clear that he is going to riff on the notion of “scientific hubris and the need for scientists to be more humble and in awe of nature.”

    It’s the old science vs. scientism thing. In reality, there is nothing more humble than the honest pursuit of knowledge through science. The method of science is in fact designed to make it impossible to justify knowing things that we do not in fact know, which is a pretty good description of faith.

  16. somer
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Typical “life is a mystery” tosh. There are a number of detailed explanations for the origins of life now – although they have not been empirically proven. Nick Lane’s book out a few years ago – Life Ascending, gives a concise but (to me) comprehensive explanation of the formation of life and eventually even eukaryotes with the first life originating from serpentine rocks which formed “cell” cavities which gave rise to ribosomes etc eventually formed self contained cells. Mitochondria, nucleus, sexual reproduction (the reason for it), photosynthesis etc explained – Much of this discovered in the last few decades.

    I can understand the fear of inappropriate and heartless application of mathematics like laws and appropriation of “facts” to economics for right wing ends, and I suspect this is part of what drives the Left’s critiques of science or “technology” (which is nothing without science of course). However I would argue such maths is often applied inappropriately in Laissez faire economics which assumes that all human behaviour can be reduced to money or markets or assuming that money is the only significant resource (whereas, for example, Marxists assume labour is the only resource. Both effectively downplay the basic biochemical and physical requirements of human life or well being in favour of a particular supposedly timeless social order or way of doing things.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      Fully endorse your comments on “Life Ascending”. May I recommend Lane’s latest book, “The Vital Question”, just out in paperback in the UK. Starts where the earlier book left off: impossible to do it justice in a summary (even if I was capable of it). Quite brilliant.

      • somer
        Posted June 11, 2016 at 4:27 am | Permalink

        thanks for the tip!

  17. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    While I certainly don’t endorse Hoffman’s message, it seems to me there are a couple of points on which you overstate your case:

    In science wholes are always consistent with their parts, even when they show emergent properties that cannot (yet) be predicted from their parts.

    This is not strictly true. Quantum entanglement is a case where facts about (A + B) do not reduce to (facts about A) + (facts about B). The entanglement itself is an additional fact that cannot be explained or predicted in terms of “hidden variables” carried by A and B separately.

    Every time we understand something like fox homing better, there is less stuff that we do not know.

    I don’t think this is quite right either. The number of known facts is growing, but it doesn’t follow that the number of unknown facts must therefore be finite and shrinking. I think you would be hard pressed to make a case for the latter, given that (to take just one example) the number of prime numbers yet to be discovered is known to be infinite.

    On another reading, the boundary between the known and the unknown continually expands as we learn new things. A couple of decades ago, we knew of a handful of planets that had not yet been thoroughly explored. Now we know of thousands. The amount of planetary science yet to be done increases with each new exoplanet discovery.

    • Posted June 10, 2016 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      Marcelo Gleiser wrote a good book called The Island of Knowledge which intelligently explores the limits of science. The island is a metaphor of what we know lying in an infinite sea of what we don’t know. As our island of knowledge grows its shoreline, which is the boundary of our ignorance, grows as well.

  18. Les Robertshaw
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Dr Hoffman is singing an old song. The truly troubling aspect of his song is that so many listen and agree with him and that’s too bad.
    Global warming, climate change,vanishing resources and the myriad other problems facing humans will not be solved by Choprathink.

  19. Robert Bray
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Trite tripe. . .

    already said thousands of times, and better.

  20. garthdaisy
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Didn’t realize that utilitarianism was a science. Thought it was a philosophy. Perhaps it is a philosophy that is science’s fault. Maybe that’s what this moron meant.

  21. Posted June 10, 2016 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Wow! Who is vetting this crap? His arguments are practically childlike. SMH.

    • darrelle
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      Yes. And cliche.

    • Posted June 10, 2016 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      Childlike indeed. His argument is what I often call the 3 year old, or Tinker Bell argument. Sort of “I don’t understand how ‘lectricity lights that bulb, so Tinker Bell does it” The main difference is adults usually insert their favorite sky fairy instead of Tinker Bell.

  22. Zado
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    What a wonky Luddite.

  23. chris moffatt
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    “classical pianists or professional athletes often have great difficulty verbalizing the essence of their experience when they are perfecting their craft.”

    I’d have to say citation needed. Does this guy even know any classical pianists? I only know a few and they don’t seem to have any great difficulty. As a classically trained clarinettist (in my younger days) I can assure him that classical clarinettists go on at great length about not only the experience but the mechanics of it. Endless discussion of technical nuances, physical parameters, ways of thinking about and performing each specific piece of the repertoire – why reeds alone can bore one to death as a subject……

    “So, while science can continue to advance in exploring the rational in nature, by analyzing natural systems through “big data” models using feedback loops, time delays, accumulations and nonlinearities that operate within them”

    As a computer scientist (after I realised I needed to earn a living) I don’t even know what this means. I don’t believe the author does either; he’s just cobbled together a small word-salad that sounds (to him) delicious but is in fact totally unfilling.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

      ‘We find ourselves faced with the important question how, and indeed why music should be interpreted in words at all… As long as my experience can be summed up in words, I write no music about it; my need to express myself musically – symphonically – begins at the point where the dark feelings hold sway…’ Gustav Mahler in a letter to Max Marschalk.

      Well, since I know and have known some very good musicians and am very well acquainted with a concert pianist, and a good one whose last CD was chosen as one of the best of the year here in Japan and received a rapturous review in ‘International Piano’ magazine, I shall say that the egregious Hoffman does have a bit of a point here (note that he speaks of the ‘essence’ of a musician’s experience when perfecting the craft) – though not as important as he seems to think it is. One can certainly talk about technique, about possibilities of interpretation, about reeds if one plays the oboe or the clarinet, as well as about theories of how music works (Deryck Cooke’s, for example), and about scientific understandings of music – as in Patel’s excellent ‘Music, Language and the Brain’ – and these may certainly inform a musician’s practice; they are not necessarily going to make you a good musician, though. The trouble with Hoffman is that he supposes this ‘essence’ points to something mystical – I have always liked, since discovering it, Pierre Bourdieu’s remark: ‘(M)usic, the most “pure” and “spiritual” of the arts, is perhaps simply the most corporal…. It is pitched not so much beyond words as below them…’

      • Tim Harris
        Posted June 10, 2016 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

        ‘corporeal’ not ‘corporal’

      • Tim Harris
        Posted June 10, 2016 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

        And for a really excellent discussion of what performing involves and why merely verbal discussion is not necessarily enlightening or helpful, I recommend the theatre director Mike Alfreds’ book ‘Different Every Night: Freeing the Actor’. Alfreds was a brilliant director, and this is a brilliant book. Good practitioners of the arts are in the main very sensible people, and, unlike people who aren’t practitioners (critics and other outsiders to an art), they know what the problems are and what they are doing, and often, as in Alfreds’ case, they are very good at describing these problems and how one deals with them.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted June 11, 2016 at 1:24 am | Permalink

          ‘Likewise with pianists and athletes: we don’t understand why some composers or performers have a natural talent or keen musical acumen, but that doesn’t mean that this stuff, like athletic ability, is beyond the ken of science.’ I agree with this, but it does come across as suggesting that only the arts present some sort of problem to a properly scientific understanding. But do we understand why certain people have a natural talent for mathematics or for some natural science? Or why certain people have a keen mathematical or scientific acumen? I say this, because it has seemed to me on occasion that scientists (E.O. Wilson, for example) seem to suppose that artistic talent is something that requires explication in order to be properly understood, whereas mathematical or scientific talent is somehow transparent from the beginning and requires no explication.

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted June 11, 2016 at 3:51 am | Permalink

        I’m always suspicious of people who talk of ‘essences’ or ‘Purpose’ (with a capital P) because there is a substantial risk that they are using those words not as a useful fiction but as ‘existing’ in some supernatural way.

  24. Posted June 10, 2016 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Measuring love is trivial. Imagine a sociology survey or the like. “I’m going to read to you a number of people from a list. For each of them, please tell me if you love them not at all, somewhat, or a great deal.” Later in the survey, “Please tell me if you think the following people love you not at all, somewhat, or a great deal. Also tell me if you are mostly sure or mostly unsure about your assessment.”

    Perfectly valid, and that sort of thing is done all the time.

    Sure, we might not have a “love scale” that has units we can define and a standard we can measure it against. But that same sort of lack doesn’t stop political scientists from measuring all sorts of other unit-less social phenomena.



  25. darrelle
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    “More specifically, we need to recognize that a scientifically derived understanding as our only understanding of the environment leads to a utilitarian and mechanistic awareness of the natural world. That framing leads to many of the pathologies we now face: behaviors that lead to climate change, water scarcity and species extinction on a massive scale – and hampers our ability to appreciate – and therefore protect – nature for reasons that go beyond the limits of our understanding.

    So the people who figure stuff out are to blame for all that? What about big business, politics, greed and human nature?

  26. Posted June 10, 2016 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    I have a theory, which is mine, that many people insist there must be other valid epistemologies besides science because they think science is a very narrow, rigid form of investigation. I think of science as any effort made to suss out objective facts about reality and then check them. They also think scientists simply and greedily want to claim those “other ways”, insofar as they are reliable, as science. But that’s backwards. It’s like the term “exercise”. Exercise isn’t something that only happens at the gym on a treadmill. You are also exercising when you mow the lawn, or help a friend move. Those things just are exercise, and not because personal trainers want to greedily expand the category “exercise”.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted June 11, 2016 at 1:27 am | Permalink

        We are surrounded by sounds, certainly…

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted June 11, 2016 at 8:00 am | Permalink

        As John Cage so eloquently put it, we are surrounded by music.

        If this were Family Guy, there would be a cut-away to Custer’s Last Stand, or the “what do you mean ‘We’, white man?” Lone Ranger joke.

    • chris moffatt
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      I have a hypothesis that those people who insist there must be other valid epistemologies besides science, aka “other ways of knowing”, do so because they find Science too hard for them to understand.

      • Posted June 10, 2016 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

        I’m inclined to agree. And I think there’s a fear that science is elitist, because much of it is indeed too difficult and complex for most people to do or understand. A lot of science really does demand an elite level of intelligence. But if there are “other ways of knowing,” then, well, everybody’s just as smart as everyone else, and I suppose it’s just much more comforting to believe that than to believe that some people are smarter than others. That billions of people worldwide hold fundamental beliefs that are simply wrong is too uncomfortable a fact for some people to acknowledge. The idea that faith is simply “another way of knowing” soothes that discomfort enormously.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted June 11, 2016 at 8:17 am | Permalink

          I think you’re right on the psychology of it, but the facts are (as almost always with sciences) different to the popular presentation of them.

          A lot of science really does demand an elite level of intelligence.

          I dance around all over the physical sciences. Yes, they do sound intimidating at first glance, but thy are almost always parsable. You may need to either research what a piece of terminology means, or work it what the terminology means from the context and the rudiments of Greek and Latin which you accumulate over the years. But really it’s just another language. The hard thing is turning those chunks of language into a mental model of what the authors are trying to communicate, and in a well-written paper the authors are trying really hard to help you do that.
          It’s still hard work, but more on the time-consuming leg-work side rather than the being stunningly difficult. For an example, I find I’m considerably hampered because I just don’t get maths beyond differential calculus terribly well. It’s just a mental failing that I have. I know the maths is there ; that it’s readily testable, and unless you’re a long way out on the borders, checking a proof is almost mechanisable. So I simply have to rely on the peer reviewers to have done the checking for me. That modularity of both science and the process of science is what makes it work.
          As for picking up the language from bits and pieces and correlations and sometimes a dictionary … well if Donald trumps illegal-alien construction workers can do it to speak passable English, does that mark them as being more intelligent than the execrable Trump?

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted June 11, 2016 at 3:54 am | Permalink

        … or too unpalatable. Or an inconvenient truth.

  27. Posted June 10, 2016 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Some times I wish you would say what you really mean!

  28. phoffman56
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    With tongue firmly wedged in my left cheek, I must announce that serious genealogical research, despite the common name, indicates that this Hoffman fellow and I have no known human common ancestor.

  29. rskurat
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Just finished the essay, and really, it’s just totally incoherent.

    I checked his CV and noticed his degrees are in Engineering; while many of the engineers I know are very intelligent people, they are not scientists or deep thinkers. Like many PhDs they think they’re smart enough that their skills are transferable to any discipline, but this is rarely the case.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

      Well, it’s nice to know that there is no foundation for the assumption that Dr Hoffman is a representative of those dreadful humanities.

      • rskurat
        Posted June 10, 2016 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

        !!! – I don’t subscribe to the Leavis-Snow Two Cultures idea at all, in fact my humanities acquaintances have a very real appreciation of science.

        The people to beware of are the neuroscientists who think their opinions on immunology matter, or the engineers who think they understand ecology, or the evolutionary biologists who seem to know all about human psychology (I’m referring to Dawkins here, not Jerry).

        • Tim Harris
          Posted June 10, 2016 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

          !!! – Not accusing you of subscribing to Leavis-Snow at all! I was just tilting at the assumption – not yours – that if someone says foolish about science it must be because they have a background in the humanities.

      • Ben
        Posted June 11, 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        I thought Mr. Hoffman suggested a lack of a humanities background in the internal evidence supplied in his selection of “supporting quotes” that he can’t detect irony.

  30. keith cook±
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Hoffman does not realise or perhaps he does, that he has put a cap on how much he wants to know about the truth of life and is content with that. The problem is, why tell others.

  31. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 2:33 am | Permalink

    Science is inherently humble. It works by accepting that we don’t know everything and by continuing to prod and scratch away diligently at our ignorance. It tests its ideas to destruction and gives them up when they are not supported by the evidence. This is in complete contrast to other so-called ‘ways of knowing’: there is surely much greater arrogance in simply claiming to know that some God created everything and furthermore to know in what way this God expects us all to behave.
    Where we could be more humble is in our use of technology. Because we can dam a river, say, it does not necessarily mean that we should. Here science has a key role to play in seeking to understand the consequences of different courses of action so that properly informed decisions can be made. The point has been made above that scientists have long since brought global warming and climate change to our notice but business and political interests may and often do choose to ignore what scientists tell them.

  32. Zem
    Posted July 7, 2016 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    I tried to get in touch with the other parts of my consciousness, aside from empirical reason.
    Below I am posting the results.

    Me: “Instinctive side, what do you think we should do about animal abuse?”
    IS: “Cows scare me! When’s dinner?”
    Me: “Imaginative side, your views on greenhouse gases?”
    ImS: “If you squint, that cloud looks sort of like a rabbit.”
    Me: “Philosophical side! How you you propose we solve world hunger?”
    PS: “Here, I constructed a world in which hunger is nonexistent.”
    Me: “OK…”

%d bloggers like this: