What I’m reading lately: Scholar’s Stage, Popper, Grug

The other day I enjoyed reading Tanner Greer’s “The World that Twitter Never Made” (July 2022). That essay is a blog-postscript to Greer’s own City Journal essay of the day before, “Our Problems Aren’t Procedural”, which itself was a response to Jonathan Haidt’s Atlantic cover story “After Babel” (May 2022). Haidt had argued that the past decade of “uniquely stupid” American political-and-social culture can basically all be blamed on decays in

social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three.

(In May I found Haidt’s essay enjoyable but in a guilty-pleasure way; it was a little too obvious that Haidt was rhetorically pushing the same outrage-inducing, Atlantic-reader-pleasing buttons that he claimed were the problem in the first place.) Greer writes:

[…] I applaud his stand against the crazies, but I am frustrated by the manner in which he chooses to make it.

By focusing his ire on social media, Haidt elevates the procedural over the substantive. There is little evidence that changing procedural form this or procedural form that will make any difference on the long term. […]

The boomer centrists do not know how to respond to accusations of racism or sexism without sounding like the echo of their own parents. So they don’t respond to these accusations. Instead they grasp for theories that allow escape from the actual issues at play. That is, they flock to theories of procedure, not substance.

Greer’s differentiation between theories of procedure and theories of substance reminds me of a bit from Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934) — specifically his preface to the 1958 English translation:

Language analysts believe that there are no genuine philosophical problems, or that the problems of philosophy, if any, are problems of linguistic usage, or of the meaning of words. I, however, believe that there is at least one philosophical problem in which all thinking men are interested. It is the problem of cosmology: the problem of understanding the world — including ourselves, and our knowledge, as part of the world. All science is cosmology, I believe, and for me the interest of philosophy as well as of science lies solely in the contributions which they have made to it [i.e., to cosmology]. […] Admittedly, understanding the functions of language is an important part of [that goal]; but explaining away our problems as merely linguistic “puzzles” is not.

Sections 4–6 expand on this theme. Essentially, Popper frowns on his peers’ attempts to produce a formal language that equates meaningfulness with verifiability — that is, to produce a “language of science” in which only empirical and scientific statements are considered meaningful, and metaphysical claims are considered not just undecidable but fundamentally meaningless. Footnote, page 40:

Note that I suggest falsifiability as a criterion of demarcation [between scientific hypotheses and metaphysical claims], but not of meaning. […] Falsifiability separates two kinds of perfectly meaningful statements: the falsifiable and the non-falsifiable. It draws a line inside meaningful language, not around it.

Popper’s theory of science requires (rather than forbids) that it be possible to utter non-empirical and metaphysical ideas — not as nonsense strings, but as ideas.

By the way, the middle section of the book is taken up by a very long and boring digression into Popper’s own idiosyncratic version of probability theory. On page 159 Popper (writing in 1958) footnotes:

I suggest that sections 55 to 64, or perhaps only 56 to 64, be skipped at first reading. It may even be advisable to turn from here [page 159], or from the end of section 55, direct to chapter X [page 251].

And I am two-and-twenty, and oh, ‘tis true, ‘tis true.

Finally, I highly recommend “The Grug Brained Developer.” This is a great, great bit of tech writing — curmudgeonly, witty, and above all, pleasantly insightful. The writing voice is that of a caveman developer named Grug — voice-wise somewhere between Gronk from Lost Pig and Eloise from the Plaza.

grug very like type systems make programming easier. for grug, type systems most value when grug hit dot on keyboard and list of things grug can do pop up magic. […]

code completion in IDE allow grug not have remembered all API, very important!

java programming nearly impossible without it for grug!

really make grug think some time

Grug, like Arthur, is a big fan of Chesterton’s Fence. (See “When Should You Give Two Things the Same Name?”.)

Posted 2022-07-26