Explaining vs. Explaining Away

John Keats’s Lamia (1819) surely de­serves some kind of award for Most Fa­mously An­noy­ing Poetry:

…Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philos­o­phy?
There was an awful rain­bow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her tex­ture; she is given
In the dull cat­a­logue of com­mon things.
Philos­o­phy will clip an An­gel’s wings,
Con­quer all mys­ter­ies by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Un­weave a rain­bow...

My usual re­ply ends with the phrase: “If we can­not learn to take joy in the merely real, our lives will be empty in­deed.” I shall ex­pand on that to­mor­row.

To­day I have a differ­ent point in mind. Let’s just take the lines:

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Un­weave a rain­bow...

Ap­par­ently “the mere touch of cold philos­o­phy”, i.e., the truth, has de­stroyed:

  • Haunts in the air

  • Gnomes in the mine

  • Rainbows

Which calls to mind a rather differ­ent bit of verse:

One of these things
Is not like the oth­er­s
One of these things
Doesn’t belong

The air has been emp­tied of its haunts, and the mine de-gnomed—but the rain­bow is still there!

In “Right­ing a Wrong Ques­tion”, I wrote:

Trac­ing back the chain of causal­ity, step by step, I dis­cover that my be­lief that I’m wear­ing socks is fully ex­plained by the fact that I’m wear­ing socks… On the other hand, if I see a mirage of a lake in the desert, the cor­rect causal ex­pla­na­tion of my vi­sion does not in­volve the fact of any ac­tual lake in the desert. In this case, my be­lief in the lake is not just ex­plained, but ex­plained away.

The rain­bow was ex­plained. The haunts in the air, and gnomes in the mine, were ex­plained away.

I think this is the key dis­tinc­tion that anti-re­duc­tion­ists don’t get about re­duc­tion­ism.

You can see this failure to get the dis­tinc­tion in the clas­sic ob­jec­tion to re­duc­tion­ism:

If re­duc­tion­ism is cor­rect, then even your be­lief in re­duc­tion­ism is just the mere re­sult of the mo­tion of molecules—why should I listen to any­thing you say?

The key word, in the above, is mere; a word which im­plies that ac­cept­ing re­duc­tion­ism would ex­plain away all the rea­son­ing pro­cesses lead­ing up to my ac­cep­tance of re­duc­tion­ism, the way that an op­ti­cal illu­sion is ex­plained away.

But you can ex­plain how a cog­ni­tive pro­cess works with­out it be­ing “mere”! My be­lief that I’m wear­ing socks is a mere re­sult of my vi­sual cor­tex re­con­struct­ing nerve im­pulses sent from my retina which re­ceived pho­tons re­flected off my socks… which is to say, ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tific re­duc­tion­ism, my be­lief that I’m wear­ing socks is a mere re­sult of the fact that I’m wear­ing socks.

What could be go­ing on in the anti-re­duc­tion­ists’ minds, such that they would put rain­bows and be­lief-in-re­duc­tion­ism, in the same cat­e­gory as haunts and gnomes?

Sev­eral things are go­ing on si­mul­ta­neously. But for now let’s fo­cus on the ba­sic idea in­tro­duced yes­ter­day: The Mind Pro­jec­tion Fal­lacy be­tween a multi-level map and a mono-level ter­ri­tory.

(I.e: There’s no way you can model a 747 quark-by-quark, so you’ve got to use a multi-level map with ex­plicit cog­ni­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tions of wings, airflow, and so on. This doesn’t mean there’s a multi-level ter­ri­tory. The true laws of physics, to the best of our knowl­edge, are only over el­e­men­tary par­ti­cle fields.)

I think that when physi­cists say “There are no fun­da­men­tal rain­bows,” the anti-re­duc­tion­ists hear, “There are no rain­bows.”

If you don’t dis­t­in­guish be­tween the multi-level map and the mono-level ter­ri­tory, then when some­one tries to ex­plain to you that the rain­bow is not a fun­da­men­tal thing in physics, ac­cep­tance of this will feel like eras­ing rain­bows from your multi-level map, which feels like eras­ing rain­bows from the world.

When Science says “tigers are not el­e­men­tary par­ti­cles, they are made of quarks” the anti-re­duc­tion­ist hears this as the same sort of dis­mis­sal as “we looked in your garage for a dragon, but there was just empty air”.

What sci­en­tists did to rain­bows, and what sci­en­tists did to gnomes, seem­ingly felt the same to Keats...

In sup­port of this sub-the­sis, I de­liber­ately used sev­eral phras­ings, in my dis­cus­sion of Keats’s poem, that were Mind Pro­jec­tion Fal­la­cious. If you didn’t no­tice, this would seem to ar­gue that such fal­la­cies are cus­tom­ary enough to pass un­re­marked.

For ex­am­ple:

“The air has been emp­tied of its haunts, and the mine de-gnomed—but the rain­bow is still there!”

Ac­tu­ally, Science emp­tied the model of air of be­lief in haunts, and emp­tied the map of the mine of rep­re­sen­ta­tions of gnomes. Science did not ac­tu­ally—as Keats’s poem it­self would have it—take real An­gel’s wings, and de­stroy them with a cold touch of truth. In re­al­ity there never were any haunts in the air, or gnomes in the mine.

Another ex­am­ple:

“What sci­en­tists did to rain­bows, and what sci­en­tists did to gnomes, seem­ingly felt the same to Keats.”

Scien­tists didn’t do any­thing to gnomes, only to “gnomes”. The quo­ta­tion is not the refer­ent.

But if you com­mit the Mind Pro­jec­tion Fal­lacy—and by de­fault, our be­liefs just feel like the way the world is—then at time T=0, the mines (ap­par­ently) con­tain gnomes; at time T=1 a sci­en­tist dances across the scene, and at time T=2 the mines (ap­par­ently) are empty. Clearly, there used to be gnomes there, but the sci­en­tist kil­led them.

Bad sci­en­tist! No po­ems for you, gnomekil­ler!

Well, that’s how it feels, if you get emo­tion­ally at­tached to the gnomes, and then a sci­en­tist says there aren’t any gnomes. It takes a strong mind, a deep hon­esty, and a de­liber­ate effort to say, at this point, “That which can be de­stroyed by the truth should be,” and “The sci­en­tist hasn’t taken the gnomes away, only taken my delu­sion away,” and “I never held just ti­tle to my be­lief in gnomes in the first place; I have not been de­prived of any­thing I right­fully owned,” and “If there are gnomes, I de­sire to be­lieve there are gnomes; if there are no gnomes, I de­sire to be­lieve there are no gnomes; let me not be­come at­tached to be­liefs I may not want,” and all the other things that ra­tio­nal­ists are sup­posed to say on such oc­ca­sions.

But with the rain­bow it is not even nec­es­sary to go that far. The rain­bow is still there!