Tuesday, 12 September 2006
It is the first talk of new term and the introductory formalities take up more time that usual. This is the moment the new Visiting Fellows are introduced to the old hands; and it turns out that there are more visitors staying for shorter times to introduce. Then there's the announcements of coming events: two conferences and the nexttalk.
Finally, finally we get to the main event. Nick Rescher, our Center co-Chair, is
maintaining a venerable tradition: he will give the first talk of the semester, launching our events with his elegant charm. I do my best to introduce him. How do you introduce such an extraordinarily prolific scholar, whose publications begin before I was born?
I settle back to hear the story. "Oversimplification." A lesser speaker would have succumbed to the temptation to make all sorts of strained, self-referential jokes. Not Nick. He is old school. He reads his papers; he reads them well, so that it almost seems conversational. Well, what can be said about oversimplification? The story begins to unfold. Simplification is neglecting unnecessary things. Oversimplification is neglecting so much that your purposes are no longer served. The errors of omission force errors of commission. Then the types of errors are broken down further: confusion and conflation; and the examples begin to fill the overhead projector screen.
As they developed, I began to think to myself that I should have known how it would go. "I'm a pragmatist!" Nick remarked later in discussion and that was very evident here. The line between simplification and oversimplification was defined by our purposes. It was crossed when those purposes were compromised.
A second theme began to emerge on which Nick did not comment but it is I have seen repeatedly in his work. So many philosophers have become pessimists. Their theses maintain that this or that theory fails, that we are confused about this or concept or that who knows what part of our common sense just doesn't work. You leave those talks feeling that you are ten steps behind where you were when you walked in. Not so with Nick. He has an irrepressible optimism that that we can figure things out. The world may be complicated and dauntingly so, but we can still say definite things about it.
All this was developed in examples that are sometimes commonplace observations: that the dollar bill is crumpled can be overlooked if we are paying a human teller, but not for a scanning machine. Or they are geometrical: we simplify the map with the jagged path by the smooth path. And sometimes they are symbolic.
We started to near the goal of the analysis. Nick's concern was "cognitive myopia"- the inability to see things clearly--that came from confusion (mistaking an A for a B) or conflation (thinking that A and B are the same thing). That myopia would mean that sometimes a lawful pattern in the world would disappear from our sight. A well ordered ABABABABABAB... might look like a chaotic ABBBABAAABB... Or conversely a chaotic system CDDDCDCCCCDCC... might look, thanks to our cognitive myopia, like a perfectly uniform ***********... because we conflate C, D and *. This might make you think that reducing oversimplification must surely improve matters. But no. Nick displayed an example in which a selective reduction of oversimplification functioned merely to obscure a pattern that was otherwise evident.
Might all this happen? Must all this happen? We should expect it. The world is so rich that oversimplification is inevitable in any serious science. A coarse gloss on the history of science is a story of oversimplifications repeatedly corrected. Therefore we must expect our cognitive myopia to lead our theorizing into mismatches with what is really there, either by overlooking real laws or creating spurious ones. The road was long, roughly 40 minutes long, and it took us on a new pathway to a familiar destination, fallibilism about our science.
The talk had been so clear, that I did not imagine that there would be many questions. But the audience was eager. Peter Machamer started with the question that had to be asked, even if only as a self- referential formality. Had Nick oversimplified?! Isn't schematization different from abstraction? The questions kept coming and the discussion flowed from topic to topic: complex systems, Riemann on functions, fluid flow, new work in history of science, unification of theories, oversimplification in pedagogy and more. And when a well- exercised speaker remarked that we were all tired and brought the proceedings to an end, I noticed that there were still a few bagels, but virtually no donuts, left.
John D. Norton
12:05pm, 12 September 2006