Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The Human Use of Human Beings, Chapter 11

Summary of Chapter 11: Language, Confusion, and Jam

This concluding chapter starts off with a promising idea: Wiener states that he will explore the “philosophical assumptions” underlying the work of Benoit Mandelbrot and Roman Jakobson. However, he ends up making no more than passing reference to these two, namely that:

They consider communication to be a game played in partnership by the speaker and the listener against the forces of confusion, represented by the ordinary difficulties of communication and by some supposed individuals attempting to jam the communication. (187)

[Another thing: Based on the title of the chapter I was really hoping W was going to use the word “jam” in some jazzy/beatnik-derived sense, which would have been adorable and also refreshing. “Jam” in that sense could have been an opening for a positive sense of entropy and/or disorder as something creative, which W is lacking.]

This is based on Von Neumann’s game theory, in which one team tries to communicate a message, and the other tries to “jam” it. He then makes the point that, strictly speaking, in Von Neumann’s theory of games, both sides are pursuing rationally optimal strategies; they will not “bluff” to confuse each other, but are being in a sense perfectly honest and open, despite being opposed. He relates this to a quote from Einstein: “God may be subtle, but he isn't plain mean.” (188)

The point being that, unlike humans, nature is not deceitful. This means that scientists, used to studying nature, are na├»ve out of necessity. Scientists are not like detectives, a kind of thinking which has its role in other fields, e.g., “official and military science.” This kind of thinking is counterproductive in actual science, as it is a waste of time:

I have not the slightest doubt that the present detective-mindedness of the lords of scientific administration is one of the chief reasons for the barrenness of so much present scientific work. (189)

[whatever “barrenness” means]

Thus, a position of being overly “suspicious” like a detective makes you no good at science, because scientists have to trust that nature is honest, not deceitful. [He does not address this, but his odd anthropomorphizing stance must break down when it comes to the social sciences, which study humans, who can be deceitful.]Another kind of position that is bad for science is the “religious soldier,” who is a follower of propaganda of either the right or the left (he singles out “the soldier of the Cross, or of the Hammer and Sickle” (190)).

He ties this back to his earlier distinction between Augustinian and Manichaean perceptions of the devil: the first is just a force of nature, in the service of God (and thus equivalent to entropy in his worldview). The second is willfully malicious and in fact has some chance or belief in the chance that it can prevail (like Milton’s Satan). Scientists need to maintain an Augustinian view, but this is difficult because

The Augustinian position has always been difficult to maintain. It tends under the slightest perturbation to break down into a covert Manichaeanism. (191)

This is because Manichaeanism has more emotional and dramatic attraction; and also because Manichaeanists of the right and left create political conditions which they force upon scientists.

In this present day when almost every ruling force, whether on the right or on the left, asks the scientist for conformity rather than openness of mind, it is easy to understand how science has already suffered, and what further debasements and frustrations of science are to be expected in the future. (190)

A Manichaean suspects the world of being dishonest, and so adopts dishonest strategies in turn; this is obviously not good for science and the search for truth. There is an irony that the world created by these Manichaean faiths undermines the possibility of faith, which requires the existence of free choice. Science requires its own form of faith:

I have said that science is impossible without faith. By this I do not mean that the faith on which science depends is religious in nature or involves the accept­ance of any of the dogmas of the ordinary religious creeds, yet without faith that nature is subject to law there can be no science. (193)

The needs of science, and of a free and democratic society, necessarily dovetail:

Sci­ence is a way of life which can only flourish when men are free to have faith. A faith which we follow upon orders imposed from outside is no faith, and a com­munity which puts its dependence upon such a pseudo-faith is ultimately bound to ruin itself because of the paralysis which the lack of a healthily growing science imposes upon it.

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