Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Brief Note on "Unified Theories"

Scientists (and philosophers) have a tendency to be led by their activity and language into seeking explanations for things, but the explanations (like the questions) are empty, or anyway are not what we really want. Scientists and philosophers are correct in attempting to describe how things happen, but when they are led by their misapprehension of language into attempting to explain why things happen, then they find themselves involved with projects in which they really don't know what they are doing. 

I would not be surprised if the activity of pursuing "unified" theories is similarly credulous; and it is also unprofitable (that is, it does nothing to advance science, philosophical understanding, well-being, or wealth).

Also, I suspect that an investigation will show that the quest to answer how leads to liberalizing epistemological and political habits, while seeking answers to why leads to authoritarianism.


kururin said...

Hello, I found this post very intriguing but I haven't quite wrapped my head around it yet, possibly because English isn't my first language. Can you please elaborate a little on the difference between "how" and "why"? If I say that gravity pulls an apple down, is that a "how" explanation or a "why" explanation, and what exactly makes it such? Do you mean that it's impossible to really tell why anything happens because there is always another "why" that can be asked? (e.g. you can ask me why gravity exists, and if I point to its origin you can ask the same about that origin, etc) Or is this about something different?

Carter Kaplan said...

I am talking about different conversations, and much of the distinction between why and how has to do with appropriateness.

Sometimes "Why" discussions (seeking an explanati0on are perfectly appropriate:

"Why did you major in History rather than Philosophy?"

"Why did Van Gogh cut off his ear?"

Sometimes Why conversations are "inappropriate" or "awkward" or are not what we really want:

Van Gogh's paintings can be explained in therms of middle-class alienation..."

The Mona Lisa is a clear case of the objectification of women...

Similar statements/conversations seeking to understand "how" something happens, and which are more "appropriate" to the phenomenon that is being discussed:

How did Van Gogh deal with his disappointments?

How did da Vinci use paint to represent human skin?

Did da Vinci ever remark on the similarity between his face and the face of the Mona Lisa? How did he come to decide to make her similar?

Some phenomenon require an empirical explanation: Why is it hard to find cars with standard transmissions these days?

Some phenomenon require a description: I don't know anything about standard transmissions. How do you use a clutch and a stick shift?