Thursday, June 9, 2011

Concept Blindness

Concept blindness (on the analogy of color blindness) sometimes affects me—because philosophers (or scientists, or financiers, or engineers, etc.) are satisfied to communicate only with members of the clan. An instance of this affliction arose yesterday when I read the following sentence on Siris, a quote from E.L. Mascall:

The type of universe whose investigation requires the methods of modern science must, I would suggest, have two characteristics: contingency and rationality.
Apparently I didn’t “drill down” deep enough when I took my required philosophy courses in college. At any rate I came away thinking that in that clan contingency means “dependence on something else,” as in “we are contingent beings,” meaning that we didn’t make ourselves. We use that word in ordinary life to mean unforeseen eventualities, as in “contingency planning.” Fuzz set in as I read the sentence. The corrective for concept blindness is more study, of course: a little learning is a dangerous thing.

But so is, perhaps, a lot of learning—at least where clear communications are concerned. It amazes me that from a word in Latin (contingere) meaning “to touch, take hold of, be near, to border on, and to reach” we get today meanings like eventualities, dependency, and chancy. But that’s the way things are.

I have a Latin-English, English-Latin dictionary. Amusingly, if I look up what the English word “contingent” means in Latin—looking on the English side—I get the Latin fortuitus. If I look up the English “contingency,” I get casus and res, thus event and thing; res, to be sure, was used in Rome to mean exactly what we mean by thing in English—thus damn near anything we want to: the thing is, you see, things are in the saddle and ride mankind.

The meaning of “dependency” that I attach reflexively to the philosophical use of contingency arises from my courses in Aquinas at college. At Rockhurst I learned that there is only one necessary reality, God. Everything else may or may not exist—is therefore characterized as chancy, i.e., contingent, fortuitous. The chancy depends for its existence on the necessary, hence my meaning is correct, but only by a kind of derivation.

The heuristic approach to this sort of problem is to spell out the plain meaning. What Mascall is saying, in translation, is that the universe yields answers if we seek diligently to understand its logical pathways of causation, but there is no way we can see all the things that are lawfully possible within it.

Heuristic, by the way, is another of those words that, until today, afflicted me with concept blindness. It’s another affectation in learned circles. By all means use a word those with the wrong nest odor will fail to grasp. It comes from the Greek word “to find” or “to discover”; the heuristic approach to problem-solving is the quick-and-dirty way—thus by trial-and-error, graphing the damn thing, or by looking up its bloody roots. Am I guilty too? Oh yes. Far too often. But I do try to remember to explain.

1 comment:

  1. The quote continues:
    "if contingency were absent, there would be no need for empirical observation and experiment, for every truth about the world could be deduced from first principles."

    But this ignores Godel's work on "Formally Undecidable Propositions", which indicates that every truth may not be deducible from a given set of first principles.

    In both cases, a contingent and rational universe, or a non-contingent and irrational universe, there is the necessity still for good old leg work and experiment.