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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sense/Nonsense

I'm grateful to a mysterious Steve who, in responding to my last entry, nudged me towards expounding upon a simple idea: that our capacity for speculation far exceeds our ability to make sense; and the corollary, that nonsense is the necessary surplus of scientific discovery. I hadn't spent much time trying to formulate an argument for this idea, but thanks to Steve's questioning, I've begun to forge a philosophical investigation out of it. A key point here is the notion of nonsense, which Steve called me on in his most recent response. He wrote:

I guess it comes down to being clear about the meaning of "nonsense". The Phlogiston theory turned out to be false - but until the experiments were done it was a reasonable speculation - it didn't contradict known experimental results, so I wouldn't classify it as nonsense then. To base a new theory on it now - after phlogiston has been experimentally discredited - that would count as nonsense.

So, I don't think you are being very clear. On the one hand you have "If it's nonsense, it's not science." and on the other "who could produce scientific hypotheses without producing any nonsense?"

Granted. I wasn't explicit about what I meant by the term "nonsense." I'll try to fix that problem now.

For one thing, I'm not so sure it would be nonsense to base a new theory on the discredited notion of phlogiston. It would seem like a huge waste of time and resources, to be sure. But as a theory, it would still make sense. It would make predictions which past experiments have already shown to be false.

So, why claim that it would be nonsense?

When I talk about nonsense, I'm not talking about anything directly related to phlogiston, or other discredited notions. And I'm not only talking about ideas which don't have any clear practical value.

Nonsense isn't so simple.

To understand nonsense, we have to understand sense. I don't think we need an exhaustive detailing of the requirements of sense here. But we need a basic understanding of how sense is achieved, how it functions in various settings.

In science, sense is achieved when theories generate predictive value. The sense of a theory is in the predictions it makes, and its value is judged according to the outcome of those predictions. (Thus, we can say that a new theory based on phlogiston would have no value, but would still make sense.)

In logic, sense is achieved when truth-preserving operators transform premises into conclusions. In mathematics, sense is achieved in a number of ways: for example, when various mathematical procedures are followed and when theorems are derived. In logic and mathematics, we use formal languages that clearly define the boundaries of sense.

With natural language, the limits of sense are not explicitly defined. And yet, nonsense is often clearly recognizable as such. For example, "I alfalfa, under the don't always."

We could develop some code here and say that sentence means, "Hello Control, I received the package." But then we would be assigning that sentence a specific sense by virtue of an artificial code; we would not be finding sense in our natural language. Which is only to say that we have no role for that sentence in our language. It does not tell us anything, or instruct us in any way. It only calls attention to itself as noise.

This is not to say that nonsense is useless. The example of nonsense above served a purpose here: to demonstrate how obvious nonsense can be. So we should not be tempted to say that a sentence without sense is a sentence without purpose or function. Rather, we should say that the sense of a sentence is defined by its use, and that the use of nonsense is to make noise.

So, we may define "nonsense" as follows: any utterance which has no defined role in a language (or, more generally, in a given discursive setting), which does not define a role for itself in a language (or a given discursive setting), and thus which only produces noise.

Looked at in this way, it is perhaps easier to see why I claimed that nonsense is the necessary surplus of scientific discovery. For speculation thrives on our ability to produce utterances which do not have defined roles in our language; yet, only a percentage of those utterances will lead to cogent thought patterns, let alone testable hypotheses which prove their worth with new predictive value.

To take an example, consider the situation in theoretical physics which happened to inspire me to make my initial observation here: that our best scientific theories have been interpreted as suggesting that the universe "began" some billions of years ago out of a singularity. Yet, all of our scientific theories break down when it comes to describing a singularity. So how does it make sense to say that our scientfic theories point to such a singularity? It seems like wild speculation to me, and quite likely nonsense.

I think we can say the same about many interpretations of quantum mechanics.

Science has always been plagued with problems, and its interpretations have always flirted with nonsense to one degree or another. The question is, how could it be otherwise?

It seems to me that, so long as we are going to work towards a better understanding of nature, we are going to speculate, which means we are going to extend beyond the boundaries of sense. Sometimes those ventures will redefine the boundaries of sense, which means they will establish roles for new utterances by virtue of gains in predictive value. But at least some of the time--perhaps most of the time--they will not. Thus we will have produced nonsense. And so it must be, or so I suppose.