Monday, 25 December 2017

The Land Rover Problem

By Thomas Scarborough

Imagine that I hold in my hand a single part of a 1958 Land Rover – say, a rear stub axle. Being an open-minded sort of person, I try to fit this part to any which motor parts I may find in the whole world. I continue to fit such parts together until I reach the complete termination of my plan. Not surprisingly, I end up with a 1958 Land Rover, complete in itself. Of course, I say to myself – being an enlightened man – that the appearence of a 1958 Land Rover might well have been pure chance. I therefore start all over again – only to end up with a 1958 Land Rover, again.

I shall call it The Land Rover Problem. It is, in my view, the biggest problem that the 21st century philosopher needs to overcome, before we may create a new metaphysic or total philosophy – a philosophy which describes not merely aspects of reality, but the whole of it. No matter where we start, and no matter how far our search reaches into all of reality, the end result is as pre-determined as the 1958 Land Rover. The problem lies in the method of starting with a single part – or in some cases, ending up with it. We might, after all, disassemble a 1958 Land Rover, to see which of its many parts remains in our hands in the end.

The philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard might have been the first to understand this, when he wrote in Either/Or that ‘people of experience maintain that it is very sensible to start from a principle.' Say, boredom. Thus he demonstrated how one (arbitrary) principle will explain the whole world. Just over a century later, the philosophers Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen wrote that we are 'thoroughly dominated by an unacknowledged metaphysics'. Even before we set out on a metaphysic, they wrote, we already have one. It is in the nature of the parts to deliver the result. More recently, the philosopher Jacques Derrida famously defined the problem as ‘a process of giving [reality] a centre or referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin’.

How then shall we overcome this problem?

Basically, the trouble lies in the way that we attach the parts one to another – in philosophy, our concepts. We are stuck with a Land Rover model of philosophy. This applies both to moderns and to postmoderns, with the difference that postmoderns, while they do not have a way out, are more acutely aware of the problem: ultimately, no matter where we start, and no matter how far our search reaches into all of reality, our thoughts deliver relatively useless constructions – complete in themselves, yet like the 1958 Land Rover, giving us little indication as to their real scope or merit.

Logically, there is only one way of escape, and no other. Instead of constructing philosophies by attaching concept to concept, we may stand back, as it were, to view all the concepts in the world from a distance. Imagine that we scatter every conceivable motor part of every make and model – the 1958 Land Rover, the 1961 Beetle, the 2005 Mustang, the 2008 Roadster, and of many thousands of assemblages more, over a practically infinite expanse. If then we could recognise any patterns or insights here, in this expanse – call them meta-features – we may discover another way of seeing things.

What might we then see?

Of course, we would see that no assemblage is ultimate. The 1958 Land Rover, as an example, would merely be one possible construction among many. We would recognise, too, that if we were to build only a 1958 Land Rover, we would exclude every other assemblage – or to apply this to philosophy, every competing metaphysic. These are core insights of postmodernism. Yet we would see far more than this. Once we have grasped that we are dealing with an innumerable totality of parts – which is concepts – we shall no longer be satisfied with a self-centred or parochial view of the world, but shall think expansively and holistically. Nor shall we interpret our world from a narrow point of view: ethnic, religious, ideological, economic, or scientific, among many more. We shall reject the narrow view.

Further, instead of standing self-importantly beside a 1958 Land Rover, we shall see that our construction, in the context of an innumerable totality of parts – which is concepts – is very limited. A practical infinity of concepts lies beyond our power to explain, and beyond our control. This has obvious consequences. There will always be things without number which lie beyond our own arrangement of concepts, which set a limit to our powers. Therefore any ideas of progress, advancement, development, even utopia, open the door to hubris, and failure. Similarly, we shall recognise that, to overcome our finitude, we shall (impossibly) need infinite control. This drives totalising urges: totalitarianism, fundamentalism, and over-legislation, to give but a few examples – which have led to damaged lives and disasters without number.

Much more may be said, but the point is this: on the basis of the meta-features of the totality of parts, it is possible to reach definite conclusions about the most important things in life. There is a way forward for philosophy, if we will only abandon the Land Rover model, step back, view our world as an infinite expanse of concepts, and see what we may discern through this.


Keith said...

I wonder if there’s a similarity — albeit imperfect — between what the essay dubs the ‘Land Rover problem’ of philosophy and what scientists dub the ‘Theory of Everything’ quest of physics. A quest, that is, for a single scientific explanation that, to borrow your words, ‘describes not merely aspects of reality, but the whole of it’. The essay explains Derrida’s take on the matter, which arguably applies equally to the scientists’ quest as it does to the philosophers’ quest: ‘a process of giving [reality] a center or a referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin’. Further in that vein, the scientific quest is driven, albeit unavoidably, by ‘how this one principle [a Theory of Everything] will explain the whole world [universe]’ — all natural phenomena, through the unification of all the fundamental forces of the universe.

The Theory of Everything has as its starting point (equivalent to the metaphorical ‘axle’, if you will) that such an encompassing, coherent theory is out there, to be figured out, mathematically and empirically. And, furthermore, that the quest starts with coexisting theories like general relativity and quantum mechanics, which thus far (‘string theory’ notwithstanding) have paradoxically defied integration: that is, to ‘take a stand back to view all concepts . . . from a distance . . . . [T]o recognize any patterns in this vast expanse’. Though my sense is that no Theory of Everything will actually be as such, for ever and ever; there will be no end of science. That, in fact, there will always be yet vaster possibilities and actualities regarding the laws governing the universe — what the essay refers to as an ‘infinite expanse of concepts’ — that need to be imagined, understood, and integrated into the whole in a mosaic of reality with no edges. Besides, I wonder what any such Theory of Everything would tell us — how fundamentally our understanding would be altered.

Martin Cohen said...

I thought it was a kind of 'Ship of Thesues' problem at first, but I see it is not exactly that either. But like Keith I see some links to scientific theories of the universe - notably the idea that certain starting constraints lead inevitably to our universe. That is - as far as we know! IN other words, the laws of our universe make these starting points lead to our universe...

But going back to Thomas' starting point, well, if I were to take a piece of a car, I'm sure I could end up with a very different object, indeed many different objects. Indeed, most parts appear in different models and makes of cars these days so I'm not sure the logic is so one way. Thomas might say the part leads ideally to the 1957 LR but that is surely arguable too?

It seems to me, once again, that a thought experiment is well, thought provoking, but not conclusive by any means.

Tessa den Uyl said...

What I read is that Thomas proposes the following: when the intention is to sustain B, all concepts should uphold idea B, no matter how many sidewalks one takes. ( The Socratic idea that there must be a definite answer?) If, on the contrary the intention is NOT to obtain a specific answer, we have to reexamine our own stubbornness in how we like to understand relations. The key is to question intention?

Keith said...

In the context you describe, Tessa, I see ‘intention’ as a link in a chain of logical interdependencies: ‘Intention’ evokes whether one can exercise free will. ‘Free will’ evokes whether one can recognize the pitfalls and restraints of confirmation bias. ‘Confirmation bias’ evokes whether one can conjure alternative beliefs and reckoning of consequences and factor them into unobstructed choice. ‘Unobstructed choice’ evokes whether one can resist the allure of ‘sustain[ing] B’ by subscribing exclusively to preconceived, ‘stubborn’ ideas that harbor the seeds and nourishment of B.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Dear Keith,
Your reply is fair, if you believe in the chain you describe and that all will eventually lead to that B.

Let me try to hand an example.
Dave strikes Betty so hard, that the body of Betty elevates and ‘flies’ for a moment, before falling with her head against the wall.
The intention of Dave to beat Betty might have been his incomprehension that he faces in confront to Betty, although not foreseeing the consequences.
Betty might decide to never see Dave again, or Betty might think that she did fly for a moment, and values that experience above being beaten by Dave.
The intention of Betty to draw flying from the experience rather than being abused, is not the most logical deduction, still not impossible.
We also have to take into consideration that we do not know what happened before between Dave and Betty, neither we do know how Dave relates messages nor Betty.
Then still, to beat someone might not be seen as the best of actions.
When the Zen master slaps his disciple in the face as the only answer to all questions, the disciple might suddenly recognise a set of relations he had not combined in that way ever before, just like Betty.
Do we think the slap by the Zen master is of the same kind as the slap that Dave gives to Betty? No, for the Zen master’s intention is to wake up his disciple and Dave’s intention is to expose his anger. Though both slaps serve to communicate a thought that a person believes in, which makes a distinction not automatically distinctive. Betty shows that her intention to comprehend a message is not concluding into a logical B while the effort of the disciple is to be lead to B. Though both B's might not be the B we intend above in your reply Keith. This makes me wonder what is logical, or free will, or intention?

Keith said...

Perhaps, my being a bit of a reductionist here, one ought to conclude that both slaps are improper, given the particular (though unalike) intentions you present, Tessa: whether it’s Dave ‘expos[ing] his anger’ or the Zen master ‘wak[ing] up his disciple’. Any number of different intentions — such as, of course, Betty lunging with a weapon at Dave or the disciple lunging with a weapon at the Zen master — would change the moral calculus as to the sufficiency of Dave’s and the Zen master’s intentions: self-defense. But no such extenuating circumstance — threat of harm to Dave or to the Zen master — exists in the accounts here, as far as I can see. I don’t view ‘how Dave relates messages’ or the Zen master ‘communicat[ing] a thought that [he] believes in’ rises to that level of justified extenuation. Which brings the matter of B into question.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Theories abstract -- in the sense that they must strip away from the world (which is abstraction) in order to succeed. So, for instance, for Kelvin's Q = mcΔT to work, he had to strip away the influence of the sunshine and the rain, and so on. My question would be therefore: to what extent are abstractions fitted to our world, if they so strip away from the world? The statistician George Box wrote: ‘All models are wrong, but some are useful.’ Presumably he would include 'All theories wrong.'

Thomas Scarborough said...

Most if not all thought experiments will break down at some point. The experiment here is intended to illustrate a line of thought which may originate with Kierkegaard, and has steadily gained momentum: if one begins to philosophise with any principle, kernel, origin and so on, one is (more or less) bound to come up with a predetermined result. When one surveys the history of philosophy, this would seem to explain what we see: central ideas which contradict one another all over. Reinhold Niebuhr put it like this: 'World-views may be grouped in pairs.'

Anyway, the purpose of the post is to ask how, given that this is true, one might make any further progress in philosophy today.

Keith said...

Let me take a crack at answering your question, Thomas: “[T]o what extent are abstractions fitted to our world, if they strip away from the world?” Uniquely in the language of science, as opposed to everyday language, there are critical differences between ‘hypotheses’ and ‘theories’, as you know. Based on science’s word usage, I would therefore (with respect) recast George Box’s comment to read something roughly like this: “Some hypotheses’ reasoned explanations and predictions (educated guesses) prove wrong, but some are verified through many years of repeated observation and duplicated tests to a level of coherence, conciseness, breadth, causality, and certainty that they then graduate to theories”. Admittedly more of a mouthful than Box’s assertion, but helpful, I hope, in rethinking his terse “All models are wrong, but some are useful”. Examples of theories — I assume these align under Box’s rubric of ‘models’ — include ‘cell theory’, ‘heliocentric theory’, ‘theories of special and general relativity’, ‘theory of the big bang’, ‘theory of plate tectonics’, ‘evolutionary theory’, ‘theory of quantum mechanics’ — and so on. Including many other theories — and laws (like thermodynamics) — that, though perhaps less well-known, populate physics, biology, chemistry, geology, anthropology, astrophysics, and other fields. Which, I propose, aren’t ‘all wrong’.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thinking along with the terms you use here, I think that what I am saying, Tessa, is that our philosophies are beyond intention. At least in the sense that we intend to arrive at the truth, but this is completely subverted by the way that concepts fit to concepts, as the parts of the 1958 Land Rover fit to parts of a 1958 Land Rover. Depending what you mean by our 'stubbornness', I could agree with you. We have to abandon the power of thought, and take the bird's eye view as it were, to consider what meta-features we find in thought: for example, the concepts that we deal with are infinite, we are finite, and so on.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Dear Thomas, what you describe above was insit in the ( maybe poor) example below, that the reaction of Betty is maybe illogical for most but nevertheless proposing another approach to relate to messages. There is space, and flexibility starts within ourselves.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you Keith. They say that ‘stone sharpens stone’, which a substantial comment like this promises to do.

The very words that we speak are simplified, or more exactly, abstracted. Take the example, say, of a coffee mug. We assume that it has to stand on something for a start. A coffee mug that doesn’t stand on something is just not a coffee mug (for now discounting our hanging it on a hook et cetera). If we assume that it doesn’t need to stand on something, and drop it where we stand, we shall have a broken coffee mug. But we can afford to strip out such essential information if we are considering, say, how many coffee mugs we need for a football team.

Science resorts to the same kind of simplification or abstraction. It is good as far as it goes, but it has to strip out a lot of essential information before one can work with it. This is the ‘scientific method’, namely to screen out unwanted influences on independent variables. So as an example, refrigerants include gases with certain thermodynamic properties, therefore freon for kitchen fridges very nicely fits the bill. But like the coffee cup, it is not that simple. Forty years later, we discover that it’s a catastrophe, and freon must be stopped.

I would argue that this is an ‘in principle’ problem, and does not go away as we advance. Our simplifications and abstractions are always wrong, although we may not know it.

Post a Comment