by Lloyd H. Whitling



Much of what passes for criticism of science accomplishes nothing more than to give voice to all kinds of suspicions regarding the nature of science. Though I am no great expert, I have made an effort to gain enough of a handle on it to realize most of such talk comes from those who know even less than myself. Any familiarity with science at all breeds within an interested student an appreciation for the good intentions, the immense curiosity, the craving to know, the vision of a better world for us to live in, that drives such people to give up ease and wealth in order to satisfy a craving too immense to otherwise appease.

What interests me, here, is the nature of mystery. It seems to hold some special appeal to most folks, even though they attribute it to things that seem not at all mysterious— especially the elements of a nature that can lead those humans with a scientific bent to relegate some elements of it to the imaginary, while adopting other elements as actual aspects of reality. What differentiates them from those inclined to toss a guess into the ring, and then live as though factuality had been satisfied and rectitude had been established?

There are differences, you know, between what is obviously imaginary and what is abstract. It came to me while working with music files on my computer (Now, there’s a Mystery!) that what differentiates the most of them is not whether any proposed solutions to life’s mysteries are anything directly accessible to the senses, but whether they can be quantifiable. It hurts my hedonic self—that element of me that struggles to grasp the willy-nilly nature of relationships, beliefs and happiness—that the imaginary is given so much unearned precedence by humanity. It so dominates cultural thinking that humans have elevated is to the highest status, and yet in spite of all investigations—there can be nothing shown about why it deserves such heightened approbation.

By quantifiable, I refer to their accessibility to be somehow defined by the language inherent to mathematics. I could use our sense for music for my example, but there are a great many other aspects of reality that we recognize entirely in the abstract. While less apparent for some of them than others, the accessibility to quantification is what they have in common. Anything without that accessibility has to be deemed unreal. That leaves those who defend them as existent in some mysteriously inaccessible fashion to not only work to produce the hidden factors that have so far prevented their discovery, but to explain how some of them can lay the claim of accessibility to the inaccessible without being deemed great and mischievous liars, past and present.

Music gains credence as reality not so much by its accessibility to our senses, but by what distinguishes it from noise. Music can be defined by mathematics, set within an agreed-upon system usually defined, like morality, by the culture within which it achieves its recognition. Such elements of music as duration, frequency, resonance, variants that determine harmony, key and scale, style, voice, and even what roles the materials surrounding the source and the audience will play in its reproduction. Unlike morality, we can become exposed to strange music and still recognize it as such, within limits. Moral decrees generally share a body of common practices overlaid with a set for which no reason can stated to explain them. Yet, music and morality share the same origin: the human imagination.

While you and I may take for granted the various devices upon which music gets stored, someone who would chance to unearth us in some future time may find it all mystifying beyond words. “What is this stuff?” he might ask, while holding up a CD, a cassette or a sheaf of notation, perhaps a hymnal. “Music,” he might be told. Would he scoff, wonder what good is it, and declaim it as meaningless? Maybe, even unreal? Would he study the shiny surfaces on the CDs for a while, and declare to his answerer, “Impossible?” Would he, if he figured out how to work a device that could play them, shriek and plug his ears to ward off the unpleasant noises?

Now, we know that music represents memes, and that memes occupy many forms as they go through the various stages of their replications. So, what if his informant had declared, “Memes” instead of “Music?”

Any CD represents a memeplex, an organized complex of copiable ideas that can be replicated into duplicates of themselves, or be filtered through a human mind to reappear later as part of new forms in new systems. Ideas are information in the many forms that can take.

Individual components of such memeplexes are accessible to enumeration, by which their origins, the nature of the interplay between the various memes, and their emotional and physical effects upon their hosts, can be quantified. Just as experts have learned to predict the effects that harmony, and the effects of the environment, will impose upon sound reproduction in music, so can we learn to predict the effects of various combinations of memes as they unite to form memeplexes, or even whether some combinations are possible, harmful, beneficial, dangerous, and then test them to determine the accuracy of such predictions. It is the ability to use information to make predictions, and then to measure those predictions’ accuracy, that makes something scientific. In other words, the predictions can be quantified.

And yet, memes have no existence in any solid fashion upon which we can lay hands or sense in any direct way. We know of their existence only because Mister Dawkins alerted us to them, suggested their nature, and then left us to fend for ourselves while learning, or avoiding, to understand them.

That memes were ideas that had been copied led to a lot of foofaraw that almost got the suggestion banished from existence. What got some people’s attention, and then piqued their imaginations, was the notion that misinformation also came from ideas that attracted people to copy them, and that such memes formed into dangerous sorts of memeplexes.

Once that became the de rigueur understanding by which we regarded memes, science began to be “accused” of being memes. Take a good look at the nature of science and memeplexes and, alas, the accusation turns out to not be misinformation after all. Some memes can be quantified. Those are scientific by that very fact. Many, maybe most, cannot be quantified. Those are misinformation by that very same fact—or are, at least, highly suspect for so long as that condition persists.

Think about this: How much of what you believe can be measured in some way that would enable you to describe it numerically? Whatever our backgrounds, whatever our level of achievement, we all share a common agility that enables us to cope with what life throws at us, and do so with insufficient information.

Is that not enough for us to feel proud about, that rather than feel defensive over our ignorance, we should instead accept the shameful temptation to concretize it into factoids? When something works, we adopt it and later wonder why we can’t make it work again. It ought to be wiser if we could acknowledge our absence of prescience and omniscience, and realize that we have earned many opportunities to study events that could be repeated in kind, so that we can be their masters the next time around. A bit of experience with life informs each of us that knowledge in one subject can often be applied elsewhere to our own great benefit, so that a chance to learn something ought to be regarded as a great opportunity.

While a bit of learning may be accompanied by pain, it leads to balancing pleasures that only dedicated students get to experience. That is hedonism’s secret, and unlike many other so-called secrets, it can be quantified. While applied, practical hedonism may be a wrongly maligned philosophy, it is rightly a kind of science for that reason. We all could be scientists in our lives, and stop suffering the horrendous results we’ve wrought by trying to be mystical magicians.

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Copyright ©2008 by Lloyd Harrison Whitling. Revised July 2013.