Research Episodes

In an recent blog I commented that:

…we continue to be committed to the idea of extending our current knowledge. For this to happen we should be willing to add but also to abandon ideas. This requires that some old ideas, no matter how venerable or favoured, get replaced. The criteria would be that the replacement-ideas are expected to do a better job of explaining what we call our “current raw data”, that is, materials previously gathered and collected during “research” episodes, but which have not yet been methodically and systematically processed and sorted.

There are several ideas here which merit further discussion.

Foremost is the notion of a *research episode*, which I view as a prolonged and systematic inquiry into one or more well-articulated problems, and where each problem studied relates to some earlier research. There are many examples which could be cited, for instance the many cited in Hawkings A Brief History of Time (1988), but my own research was heavily influenced by two newcomers in the early 1950’s, by ethology (a form of studying animal behaviour: Niko Tinbergen, A Study of Instinct, 1950) and the study of operant behaviour as advocated by B.F. Skinner in his book The Behaviour of Organisms (1938).

I often met Tinbergen on his regular visits to lunch with my friend and colleague B.M. Foss at Birkbeck College; I met Skinner in 1951 in Sweden at the International Congress of Psychology and thereafter every few years. We stayed in contact for the next 35 years. Both had founded new schools of research which reached far beyond Oxford and Harvard and each gave birth to distinct “schools” of thought which led to significant research efforts by others throughout the world and which expanded into fields of study other than the “Herring Gull” or the pigeon in its “Skinner box” pecking at discs. Both men deeply influenced the way we in the 20th century thought about our world.

I use the term *research episode* in a wide sense, as not confined to a short period of time, or as associated with a particular individual, but as a period within an existing science which may develop considerable momentum as new problems are explored by an increasing number of investigators (often on a cross disciplinary basis). The methods and ways of thinking about problems is influenced as new frontiers of inquiry are reached and breached. Such episodes may start as a distinct, even limited form of inquiry, and then may expand either slowly or rapidly to cover more and more “problem areas” as also inadvertently “invade” other territories.

The ethology of Tinbergen, or “instinct theory” as it was often referred to in its early days, had a profound impact on comparative neurophysiology — and continues to influence it. It extended and dated the earlier concepts of Pavlovian neurophysiology which had started almost three quarter of a century earlier. Pavlov’s thinking itself was influenced by the notion that the nervous system was a direct extension of the reflex-arc and was influenced by the idea that all neurological systems were built on a similar, closely related architecture. Differences were attributed to levels of complexity and eschewed the idea that levels of complexity could be the source of irreconcilable differences in nature itself.

What is research? The term *research* is well established. In English it comes from the verb “to search”, to look into and to look for. It covers trivial efforts — like the birth date of a favorite composer or author — to issues which require prolonged investigation, e.g. how honeybees return to their hives after foraging, or informing other bees on their return from a location of a flower patch recently visited. Doing research invariably involves that one identifies a specific problem or set of problems and follows each of these to the point when most central questions seem satisfactorily answered.

In practise the original issues which first aroused one’s interest become modified en passant, are reinterpreted and as a result of such reinterpretations the conceptual net often becomes larger. It seems that two separate tasks are involved in research: the first requires much skill in asking questions. This has to be learnt and is skill honed through experience. One has to learn how to ask the right questions, something which nay require a long apprenticeship. The second requires that one learn how to move from translating a question — however it was initially stated — into a method of discovery, a method of enquiry.

The first example refers to something done quickly, in a jiffy so to speak! Today all one needs is a computer with Internet access and the know-how about how to search for answers in Wikipedia or similar sites. Most kids in my neighbourhood know how to do this. Some are wizards at this even at a tender age! No need for them to know anything more than how to approach a computer and ask questions, or so it seems. No need to memorize answers when it is so easy to access the memory of a computer! The “search” episode can therefore be very short, whereas understanding answers discovered may take long! It is different with questions about how honeybees communicate the direction and distance from hive to food source and then return! Do bees learn by their mistakes — like we do — or is there little tolerance for those who pass on misinformation to their hive-mates? Furthermore many questions cannot be answered by referring to the work of one’s predecessors. One enters the forrest alone, without companions, and with luck or skill exits at the other side.

Every doctoral dissertation supposedly consists of a new contribution to knowledge. New? The true story is that one asks questions which invariably lean on the work of others. Of course, one may lean on a house of cards or neglect the work of unknown predecessors. One may avoid errors by acquiring extensive knowledge of the history of a problem, yet errors and ommissions are unavoidable, although one can learn to reduce these in time.

Yet asking questions such as those already mentioned take place in a context. Broadly speaking the context is the culture of the petitioner(s). Although each question follows a string of earlier questions, the sequence is not necessarily orderly. The logic also is not rigid but is often a heavy mixture of materials drawn from earlier periods which themselves are infused with analogical materials, like what if all animals are like the branches of a tree, a common trunk from ground to sky, which branch out in familiar fashion? There is also often some element of “serendipity” which helps to uncover clues en passant — often rather unexpectedly.

These clues can dramatically change the order of discoveries made. Wrong leads are familiar to most experienced researchers. However orderly sequences do occur, as during conversations between like-minded people, or when one person instructs another in a teacher-pupil relationship. One guides the other. Conversations between colleagues also keep a discussion on track and encourages each discussant to follow implications of their thoughts. Some discussions are guided by appointed chairpersons, other move along and therefore have less structure, but may nevertheless reach comparable conclusions.

Conference organizers often try to follow this model. Left on their own most people — even disciplined, somewhat compulsive and single minded professors — “skip” from topic to topic without raising questions in a coherent manner, as if questions can be peeled layer by layer like the wrappings of a Christmas present, no matter where you start! The more wrappings the greater the excitement! Ultimately the core is exposed.

*Culture* is a flexible concept. Applied to a modern community it covers the idea of a mix of micro and macro cultures. But there is a significant difference between a group — viewed as an aggregate of individuals — and a culture. A culture involves a group of individuals, marks them as belonging together by virtue of common interests, not common physical markings. What is it that individuals prefer, what draws them to each other, what holds them together over time despite diversity of experience, physical dissimilarities? Those who are devoted piano players of Mozart or attend exhibitions of Picasso are already on board — as it were — and have cultural affinities. Whatever binds their interests and commitments may be limited, but forms a common ground.

In time, three men in a boat will form a community, functional or dysfunctional. In short, although there may be significant differences in the affiliations of individuals who form a group — the Thursday evening concert goers, say — these serve as the bricks from which a modest dwelling can be built. Thus individuals are viewed also as a member of a smaller community whereas none are likely to be members of all groups which make up the society as a whole.

What about “new arrivals” i.e. immigrants? These go through an acculturation period and process which can vary from one generation to another. At first each is reared as members of several small social groups, but this changes so that mature adults often become members of several quite distinct groups with interests and interactions shared some, but not all, of their time.

Take a standard example of how we may come to get involved in a problem and in attempts to find its solution. The problem may be complex, may not have a single solution but be a multiple problem with solutions for one but not for all aspects of the original problem. “Why did the hen cross the road?” This event happens all the time in country lanes, but never — as far as I know — on Bloor Street in Toronto, or Hyde Park Corner in London. What catches our attention and arouses our curiosity most often are what to us are unusual happenings: hens crossing city roads being one.

Take another example: I visit a learned friend’s home for the first time and note that his opulent library is arranged with books placed on the shelves in order of size, not colour, not content, not alphabetically or thematically. My initial shock turns into curiosity. Why do it that way? I sense a problem and I rummage for ideas I have had about organizing my own library, about what we know about the psychology of collectors, about library science. I do so for two related reasons: I wish to explain to myself what I have seen and perhaps share my explanation with friends and colleagues! There is a leap from individual perplexity — based on personal ideas about what is normal and what people do routinely — to an awareness of a general problem, that my problems are prototypical of those of others.

This general problem can be expressed in the following manner: what leads people to organize their phenomenological experiences into categories, and what consequences follow from adopting a “grouping routine” developed by an individual and by a group of cohorts?

In both examples the initial question represents the first step to what could turn out to be a long series of successive steps. Each answer is likely to lead to additional questions, then to more enquiries. Had I asked a pedestrian question, like who designed and built the St Paul’s cathedral in London, an answer would be available readily, by consulting an on-line (internet) encyclopedia. To help distinguish between these two types of inquiries it is fitting that we give each an appropriate name. I suggest that the term “research episode” be used for those many cases where the answer to a question (a) is not already readily available; or (b) where the search for an answer to a question requires that one pursues several different alternative hypotheses, which developed during the search. Some of these hypotheses will be rejected but others may serve as stepping stones, or toeholds, to additional answers and wider, perhaps newer areas of research.

I believe that formal concept of a “research episode” is new. It is categorical — not canonical — the sense that the concept helps us to organize what is already known independently, prior to the application of the category to the material. These categorical concepts may in time be elevated and become canonical, that is, become part of an established religion! An example may help: suppose you are given a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle and several possible blueprints? One way of tackling this frustrating task is to conjecture an idea of what it is — a painting by Picasso or Turner perhaps — or work on an entirely different presupposition, namely that the puzzle will form a square or oblong picture, or perhaps a round or oval one. On what basis are thee suppositions made? What clues were used, if any? If one were told in advance the identity of the painter, or perhaps the topic of the painting, the task would be easier. (Note: we rarely enter such tasks naked; we usually get a chance to prepare ourselves — and this illustrates the importance of approaching any task with some preparation and about what is likely to happen once we start our journey of exploration.)

Suppose you find only 100 pieces of a puzzle. If told that the completed puzzle is a rectangular picture you that you need only 4 right angles pieces to form the corners. So the chances of an error in detecting a corner pieces are now 1:25, better by far than 1:5000 ! “Detect corner pieces” and “detect those right-angled pieces which define a corner” are procedural imperatives which are categorical, and may lead to the solution of the task. But if the picture is oval? Heaven help you — you will have to start by gathering together pieces by colour matching.

Final Theories for Ultimate Problem

Part of the series, “Thoughts about a Final Theory of the World”

Theories are only produced by humans. This may change in future, during the age of robotics and AI (artificial intelligence).

Each theory consists of a set of ideas about things and matters, i.e. is about something. Theories have content. Theories need not cohere, may conflict mildly or may even be irreconcilable. Many are. This is how it has been in the past and is likely to continue to be in future. Some writers have regretted that this is so, and have tried to reconcile conflicting theories, usually without success. I suspect it is a trend that will continue, but may not be more successful than previously.

We don’t know who created our first theories, when this happened, or what prompted them. It is like asking about the origin of the mind. Since there are no written records older than c.5000 years, we can only surmise what early theories were like and what was covered by them. Presumably such theories were very elementary, and far too general. The earliest written records refer to management/administrative topics, not to matters of literary, ethical, or religious interest, and not to what today would be referred to as concerned with problems of knowledge, specifically about what we know and how we have gotten to know about ourselves or related matters.

Pictorial records go back further than written records, about 40,000 years, whereas the age of homo sapiens has been estimated to be close to 200,000 years, and could be even older. Related species, like homo neanderthalensis, are older. In summary, specific knowledge about our own origins continues to be sparse, although our knowledge about more general matters is relatively substantial and falls under the rubric of cosmology. “Man, know thyself” remains a prescription.

The current rate of the growth of knowledge is prodigious. In the nature of the case, we cannot know who, when, and where a final theory will be formulated, if ever: it depends among other things on whether humans continue to be around, whether they will self-destruct, become extinct, or whether perhaps humans move to another planet and/or become a new super-human species.

Perhaps humans will invent devices which will replicate what we currently call creating ideas. The eminent physicist and writer Stephen Weinberg has written about the idea of a final theory — without claiming however, as some of his physicist predecessors did, including Newton and Einstein — that we were close to developing a theory which would “explain everything”, and in this limited sense would also be “final” (S. Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory, 1992. Pantheon Books, NY)

For several reasons, I think this is unlikely to happen. How would we actually know which of a number of entries to a competition to create a final theory will be “final”? A sounder reason is that theories contain speculations about an admittedly finite universe, beyond whose current limits we, as theorists, continuously aim to expand. In other words, those who speculate beyond what is known at present thereby declare that there is no final theory. In this manner we could fashion a universe which is beyond our immediate knowledge. A final theory would simply curtail further speculations — which is not the aim of the game of theory-construction.

It would be fairer to state that we continue to be committed to the idea of extending our current knowledge. For this to happen we should be willing to both add and to abandon ideas. This requires that selected old ideas, no matter how venerable or favoured, get replaced. The criteria would be that the replacement ideas are expected to do a better job of explaining what we call our “extant raw data”, that is, materials previously gathered and collected during “research” episodes, but which have not yet been methodically and systematically processed and sorted.

Given that our research methods are highy varied, are growing prodigiously, and that our methods are often unusual and “esoteric” — like when we use sub-atomic particle colliders like CERN — the data produced is correspondingly difficult to understand by the average person, unschooled in current techniques. Ordinary people don’t have the time or training to keep up with developments in the increasing number of different disciplines which have found a place in our universities and research institutions. Many have difficulty keeping abreast of developments in their own spheres (bubbles?) of interest.

Most of us therefore follow a path of least resistance, the path also taken by most of our predecessors, and leave those things which are beyond our own understanding to latter-day experts. Not priests (God forbid!) but people steeped in their realms of knowledge. Even if all experts in different domains agree amongst themselves, it is possible that the next expert, perhaps from some new domain, will not. This reality excludes finality — but also ensures continued progress in our expanding spheres of study.

Good Theories?

Not all flights of fancy, old or new, qualify as “good theories”, or as constructive proposals. There is however much at stake in producing better theories than those currently available. So-called “good theories”, including those which address social and practical problems and which may have a reasonable chance of yielding outcomes that meet some of our common needs, meet our ethical standards and social aspirations, but exclude self-immolation and the destruction of our species (and with it our civilizations).

I plan to add additional comments on these topics shortly. There is much to write about!

The Universe as a Mystical Concept

The universe is a mystical concept. It is not the name of a fully known object, but refers to something which by definition cannot be known in the concrete.

Counter-examples: My dog Fifi and my cat Cleopatra are two household pets, each with distinct appearances and ordinary as well as some unusual habits. I can give lots of descriptions of them which will make them familiar, even recognizable to others. I could include a photograph of each and even an odometer-reading! Furthermore their existence is not in doubt, although each has problems articulating their own existence and neither can say “cogito ergo sum” or its equivalent in dog or cat language (of course I would not understand either).

What makes the universe such a problematic concept? I have called it in fact a “mystical concept”. The concept seems to be a member of a species of names of things, to which new instances can be added without necessarily changing the concept. The concept is therefore open-ended like talking about “all humans” even though additional humans are added as I write, each one presumably different from others. What does it mean then to have a “Theory of the Universe” if it cannot be confined and contrasted with other events? The answer is that a “Theory of the Universe” is an inadequate manner of stating three entirely different problems:

  1. If the term *universe* refers to all that we known about the universe so far, but not what else could be discovered about it tomorrow. If you cannot complete the list you do not have a comprehensive concept! Adding “etc., etc.” or “ad infinitum” won’t do.
  2. If we examine the methods and means we have used to specify the universe, how can we be sure that there are not other methods that could have been used to draw up and codify its features. We have a nasty suspicion that other methods could be deployed or invented.
  3. If we can formulate an explanatory theory for all we already know about the universe, what would a replacement theory to this have to be like to be a candidate to replace the reigning theory? What features would it have? What tests would the theory have to face to continue as an unchallenged, non-contentious theory?

If we accept that problems 1-3 cannot be overcome this may be because we are dealing with a mystical concept and not with a concept which covers a particular field.

In regard to #3, once we have discovered that our reigning “Theory of the Universe” has generated contradictions which have to be removed, that we may have already discovered additional matters about our universe which confound our earlier conceptions. Only theories which make provision for all contingencies are resistant to fault-finding, and these would include the presence of mystical entities and processes, like, respectively, “the universe” and “create”.

Finale: The world as I know it is not a mystical concept but contains a welcome admission that I do not, and cannot, know everything. Furthermore I cannot know all things equally well, but I can be incredibly ignorant about many things. It is a sad fact that the expression “abysmal lack of knowledge” has meaning and much application.

Rejected, Revoked and Replaced: End to the Idea of a Final Theory

Part of the series, “Thoughts about a Final Theory of the World”

This set of blogs is about the idea held by many that a “theory” is a special piece of guess-work which could also be model for a Final Theory of the World. Such a theory has been used in the past to explain everything. Its origin – to my mind – is rooted in early deism, the idea that the world was made (created) according to a plan which can be accessed or reconstructed.

I take a contrarian position, that claims of this sort are logically faulty and consequently cannot be upheld. One cannot suppose something – that is, create a network of hypotheses — and concurrently claim it is indisputable. To insist that such a supposition is “true” or has passed strong tests of validity is to put forward a system that lifts whatever the theory asserts above any possibility of dispute. It is no longer a theory, but a faith — hence my choice of calling it “deistic”.

In truth, making a supposition is to hypothesize that it could also be incorrect: that could be disputed, and could be proven otherwise than claimed.

The alternative is as follows: to view any account given of an event as itself only an option – perhaps one of several.

One zeros in on an event which effectively marks it off from other events – an act of demarcation. This is accomplished by us using primarily linguistic descriptions. Each successive description draws lines, create a demarcation of an event which separates it from others. It happens in multidimensional space, as when we use “time” as one of the dimensions in describing events.

These are acts of judgement, and should not be construed as final acts. Furthermore, the event is invariably described in terms which are not independent of each other but form part of a contextual web. Thus when we add a new word to a vocabulary, old words are amended. It is a process without end – or so it seems.

The history of some of our most treasured concepts show this to be the case. For example, the concept of an “atom”, or lest we forget, the concept of “mind” (see G. Ryle’s classic book on this topic) or the concept of “memory” (see specifically K. Danziger: Marking the Mind, 2012). Such webs – once isolated – must be evaluate, a process which seems unending and which has kept philosophers and historians of culture continuously busy for the past few hundred years.

I suggest we view any theory as a narrative whose distinct aim is to create an explanation of clearly-defined end-states, and that each theory proceeds – far as we can tell – in the following steps:

  1. Its period of formulation
  2. Its period of application to an ever-wider circle of phenomena – this is the period when it is dressed for display as a potential theory of many things
  3. Its period of contraction when it seem that there are many authenticated events which were not covered by the theory
  4. Its period of rejection, when there is increasing doubt that the theory as an independent event covers even those events for which it was originally developed as an explanation — i.e., it is seen to fail as an explanation
  5. Its period of revocation as one of many theories which defined the brotherhood of operative theories
  6. Its official replacement when those who profess theories about a domain (e.g., the nature and properties of light) adopt a theory which is logically incompatible with its predecessors

Each of the 6 points listed needs amplification. I hope to comment on each in later blogs all of which will be related to the subtitle, “Thoughts about Final Theory of the World.”

Reply to Marc: Facts and Theories

E&E 2
This is my second Elucidation and Exegesis (E&E). In an earlier blog I wrote When we say “This is true” we imply that this statement is defensible, or reliable, therefore should not be questioned. I subsequently received a note from Marc that *defensible,* *reliable* and *unquestioned* do not mean the same. Here is one comment — others may follow.

From Fact to Theory

My earlier statement should be interpreted as saying that if a claim is defensible as well as reliable, it would be counter-productive to question it. What purpose would such a challenge serve?

To demand additional evidence for a claim (1) suggests that the claim — the assertion that such and such is the case — is inadequate and is deemed insufficiently strong, perhaps weak; (2) it also suggests that the case made does not fit snugly into a pre-existing theory. We seem to demand that every new claim falls comfortably into a theoretical place — enlightens but does not disturb our pre-existing vision of the world.

Let us examine each:

(1) Consider first the strength of support for our conclusion “that such and such is the case.” The reason we asked for additional evidence was that the statement went beyond data currently available. One could, in principle, strengthen the data on the basis of which our conclusion was reached by adding to the pile, as it were. But this would be foolish unless we also improved our the method data-collection: a matter of more and better sampling. Data — short for data-points — have to be gathered in sufficient quantity to justify any general conclusions, as for example, “The data can be stated as follows…”. Presenting only a summary of the data assumes that it is the best summary and that a closer examination of the data would not unearth new aspects of events. This assumption has been faulted time and again.

In many cases the strength of support for a conclusion is barely adequate — a discovery often made soon after it was “tabled”. In other cases the method of discovery used may seem “primitive” by current prevailing standards. It happens with alarming frequency, in step with our current technological revolution in the art of measurement. Strong support, on the other hand, leads one to conclude that a claim has sufficient merit — should be considered seriously — may therefore be tagged as factual in the traditional — even, in absolutist — sense. We would then readily concede that whenever a claim is deemed insufficient, adjunctive materials could remedy this and therefore requires to be gotten. If all goes in the anticipated direction — the claim could be moved to the positive side of the ledger. It is all very iffy and tangential. Note: a transition from “perhaps as claimed” to “most likely as claimed” — or some equivalent affirmation — is modal decision — not absolute.

From this perspective stating that “It is a fact that…” — and its milder form, “it could be that…” — reflect different degrees of certainty regardless of whether the method used to establish the conclusions can overcome critical objections. Let us label this our concerns about the adequacy of our investigatory techniques, as when medical researchers are required to run double blind controls to support their view that a drug has the effect claimed for it. Simply to claim that drug x has a lasting effect on the severity of, say, psoriasis is not enough. The claim needs to be underpinned with data gathered in a highly prescribed manner.

Looking over past claims it appears that (a) many, or most, conclusions based on “investigations” remain open to the criticism that the methods used to establish a particular (general) conclusion were inadequate as judged by current standards; (b) that conclusions which appear compatible with an extant theory and which derive their claim from this context operate under a double jeopardy: the one already mentioned (see (a) and the jeopardy that the theory itself may be wrong. To fit snugly into a faulty theory appears to me like catching double pneumonia.

(2) Fitting snugly. A claim, or assertion that such and such is the case has the earmarks of a fact, but it is also a claim that it fits snugly into a pre-existing theory. (Logically, if Tc is a current theory, Tb would be its predecessor. Presumably, the difference between Tb and Tc is noteworthy! If a reason has to be given for changing Tb to Tc it would include that Tc accommodates data which were excluded by Tb and could not be readily accommodated. Indeed — the theory Tc may make up for, or be deliberately used, to handle new data. I will examine this in more detail in a future blog.

Fitting into a Theory vs Finding a Theory to Fit into

If a fact is said to “fit” into a theory this is tantamount to saying that the fact as stated by the proposition p, or set of propositions, sp, is deducible from the premises (foundational base or axioms) of an extant theory. I am careful to distinguish between an extant theory and an ad hoc theory although is not always easy.

An extant theory is one that is in use at the time a particular fact is being accommodated, whereas an ad hoc theory is one that will have to be constructed, or formulated, for the specific purpose of accommodating proposition p into a network. One requires, as a matter of course that the network has some “range,” covers several quite distinct phenomena, otherwise the theory would be solely constructed to accommodate a solitary particular and troubling fact: it is an unacceptable proposal. Even an ad hoc theory is marketed to cover more than one fact, but is so constructed that it aims to bring a particular fact into relation with others. It does so by exclusion: the ad hoc theory usually accommodates some older facts with the new fact, but does so by excluding other facts which appear to be incompatible with the new. It is a matter of compatibility. If a fact is said to “fit” into a theory this is tantamount to saying that the fact as stated, that is, the proposition p, or set of propositions, sp, is deducible from the premises (foundational base, or axioms) of an extant theory.

I draw a distinction between an extant theory and an ad hoc theory by assuming that an extant theory is one that is in use when a particular fact is being accommodated, whereas an ad hoc theory is one that will be constructed, or formulated, for the specific purpose of accommodating p — and related statements — into a network. The ad hoc theory is usually wily — it is deliberately constructed to accommodate some older facts with a new fact, but it does this by excluding those facts which appear to be incompatible with the new. An ad hoc theory invariably creates its own set of facts, and thereby relegates many older facts into the class of “factoids,” that is the class of have-been-facts, a part of “dead science.”

Fitting a finding into a theory is always and inevitably done during the process of publicizing a finding. It is therefore an inevitable consequences of the process of communicating a discovery to others, of stating it, of trying to relate a finding to other matters which are already known, matters which have their establish location in a “knowledge-system” or a “belief system.” One expresses a finding in words and terms which inadvertently position it in a familiar context and in doing so one frames the finding, gives it theoretical relatives.

This description of what happens when a finding is brought to our attention suffers from a major defect: it suggests that a finding is placed into a system, a knowledge or belief-system, like a card placed into filing-drawer, where it has its “proper place.” But — as I shall argue in more detail on another occasion — this is not so: the term “system” is quite misleading and more formal than deserved. It is part of wishful thinking: we like to think of ourselves as “systematic thinkers, as being “well organized,” as knowing where things belong. But this self-image is less true now than ever before: we organize knowledge in many ways, in bits and pieces, as chunks, in conveniently placed separate drawers. A veritable potpourri, but not a system — and we harbour the idea that one day, some day, these different items will all be brought together, like petals of a daisy or cherries on a cherry-tee. No one has succeeded so far, although many have tried: it seems to be a fantasy without end.

A Theory for Adam and Eve

A theory has content and form. The content of a theory is what a theory is about, as expressed in the declaration “every theory is an attempt to account for something that is said to exist”, or “a theory accounts for the action of something that is said to exist’. Thus a theory takes some generally accepted phenomenon, or phenomena, and attempts to demonstrate how these — what is said to be the case, the description of the phenomenon/phenomena or state of affairs — are determined by other factors.

Of course, the concept of “determined” is itself problematic, but covers issues which cannot be dealt with in this short note. I therefore propose to limit myself by looking at only one example of an observation for which an explanation has always been asked for, by the people in the rain-forests of the Amazon basin and those that live in the coldest north: the phenomenon of the stars in their firmament.

No one accepts that these points of light are just there, pasted onto a blackened sheet of papyrus! I suspect even Adam and Eve had questions about this awesome phenomenon, and since they had no knowledge about most things or so we have been told, their questions were presumably naïve and the answers which would satisfy them would also be naïve! Yet it would be reasonable to assume that answers could be framed specifically for them by using terms which stand a little above and beyond their naiveté!

In other words, we assume that any attempt to explain something involves a reference to other cases than those included in the original question. The effort must be directed to show that current question require an answer which refers to explanations that have been accepted for similar cases and which are, by all accounts, reasonably authenticated. This is not a circular argument, but a spiral one: one moves away from the familiar into a more abstract realm.

But what is missing from a circular account is that any explanation – no matter how naïve — refers to things which are beyond our current ken, and includes imaginary agents, events and forces. We have to assume that even Adam and Eve had this capacity to imagine the impalpable otherwise they could not have been seduced in the first place! Adam and Eve had to be able to imagine a superior world to the one they inhabited. “Oh brave new world that hath such creatures in it” (Shakespeare: The Tempest, Miranda, Act 5., Sc 2.)

Conclusion: Humans – in general – have an attribute (which is itself inferred) that allows them to envision, name and concretize matters or events beyond their individual sensory inputs and beyond what they already know.

In modern terms, through a bewildering variety of technical devices, we exotic creatures transform our perceptions in a more extravagant manner than any other living thing known to us. We then manufacture images, compositions, models, and other responses with an often unrecognizable assortments of characteristics. Furthermore we have, so far, failed to construct a reliable working model of our own activities that can accurately predict what we do, when and how we do these things and, above all, why.