Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"The Hobgoblin of Little Minds"

To some extent yesterday's polemical attack on logic can be attributed to what we might call the fundamental fallacy of positivism, which is its attempt to equate certainty with consistency. If, as I suggested yesterday, much of the mind-rot of our current "reckless thinking about semantics" can be attributed to computer science education, then the problem with such education is that, where artifacts of both hardware and software are concerned, consistency is the only form of certainty that matters. Thus, if we talk about compiler construction in terms of the formal description of a programming language and an equally formal description of the capabilities of a computer, then the "proof that the compiler works" amounts to establishing the consistency of the programming-language-representation with the compiled internal-machine-representation. Whether or not that former representation has anything to do with what a programmer "intends" (let alone what a client who has hired that programmer "wants") never signifies in establishing such consistency. Consequently, it is no surprise that such a question of "customer satisfaction" should, itself, be reduced to a consistency problem by introducing a discipline called "requirements analysis," through which "what the client wants" could be represented through a formal "specification language." In this positivist framework all that mattered was that the programming-language-representation be consistent with the specification-language-representation.

To some extent we should probably grant that the positivist assumption is correct: Consistency is the only thing of which we can be certain. My point is that we put too much stock in accepting that assumption. Like the World Wide Web, the world itself is too messy for us to expect certainty. Indeed, the whole point of Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is that there is quantifiable uncertainty in any "instruments of measurement" that we apply to observing that world. Consistency is thus worse than Ralph Waldo Emerson's "hobgoblin of little minds;" it is a pragmatically unattainable goal that distracts us from more realistic goals concerned with "living with the mess" (otherwise known as being-in-the-world). This does not mean that we cannot, from time to time, "clean up" some of the mess. This is basically how we deal with what Henry Miller called the "order which is not understood;" and it is our natural capacity to deal with the mess that motivates what I have called the "hermeneutic imperative" of our approach to education. However, the mess will never be entirely eliminated; and we shall never drink from the Holy Grail of certainty. Were we do to so, we would arrive at a utopian state; and, as Isaiah Berlin has observed, the fact that such a utopia is a state means that, once it has been attained, there is no reason for anything else to happen. In other words "living with the mess" turns out to be the fundamental reason for living at all!

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