Sunday, April 25, 2010
Posted by Jeff Lipshaw
While I was working on the elliptical just now, I was watching a Teaching Company DVD with a University of Colorado physicist named Steven Pollock conducting a course in particle physics for non-scientists (don't ask why). He was talking about electrons and said something like "for our purposes it's okay to think about electrons as little billiard balls, but in some instances that can lead you to a very wrong conclusion."
One lesson from cognitive science is the fundamental role of metaphor in meaning. What thinking about electrons as billiard balls does is to give them a meaning by analogy to other things, and we base our view of the coherence of the explanation (not its rightness or wrongness) on how it compares to other explanations we already view as coherent. (That's what makes quantum mechanics and particle physics so hard.) I have already suggested that the entire game in the Goldman Sachs contretemps is the metaphor one uses to frame the problem: if you see Goldman as an adviser (as it would be were this a merger or acquisition), you see its statements and omissions in a wholly different light than if you see Goldman as a bookie.
And as with electrons, I was thinking about metaphors that just go wrong. I cannot now find the link, but I somebody posted something recently about the morality and sportsmanship of strategic fouling at the end of a basketball game, taking the view that the strategy was indeed morally questionable, and likely the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it. (If you know whose it was, drop me a note.) It called to mind a scene in one of my favorite books, Fantastic Voyage, by Isaac Asimov. A ship and its crew are miniaturized so they can travel through a man's bloodstream and destroy a life threatening blood clot from the inside. One peril leads to another and they are traveling through a lymph node where they witness antibodies destroying a bacterium. Here's the passage:
Cora said excitedly, "You can see them cluster. How . . . how horrible."
"Are you sorry for the bacteria, Cora?" said Michaels, smiling.
"No, but the antibodies seem so vicious, the way they pounce."
Michaels said, "Don't give them human emotions. They are only molecules moving blindly. Inter-atomic forces pull them against those portions of the wall which they fit and hold them there. It's analogous to the clank of a magnet against an iron bar. Would you say the magnet attacks the iron viciously?"
Attributing morality to fouling in basketball is the use of a metaphor to give meaning to the act. It's a way of making the act coherent in the context of the game. I think it's the wrong metaphor, but that's what makes synthetic CDO trading. To me, seeing immorality in a fouling strategy is like attributing viciousness to antibodies. In baseball, the second baseman "cheats" on a double play by not really touching the base (a "phantom double play") and the umpire still calls the runner out. In hockey, all sorts of slashing, interference, hooking, and roughing goes on - as much as can be gotten away with. You may not like it aesthetically, but it's not an issue of morality. To the contrary, in golf, you call penalties on yourself (see Brian Davis at the Heritage last week) and that's the way the game works. It's OKAY in golf to impute morality because we accept the metaphor (actually golfers - and I am one - are insufferable about that, but that's besides the point).
I think what makes basketball different is that it's one of the few instances in sport where you deliberate take a penalty because it gives you an advantage. The only other one that comes to mind quickly is the case when a football team too close to the goal line takes a delaying the game penalty to move back and improve the angle for the kicker. But the solution there (I think) is that the other side can simply decline the penalty. If the "deliberate fouling" strategy in basketball were that morally offensive and not, instead, a way to keep the fans interested in the game, there would be an easy solution - let the other team decline the penalty. But nobody really wants that change.
My point isn't about basketball, however. It's about metaphors and meaning, and mainly the reaction to Goldman Sachs. Nor do I think that there's an "appropriateness" cutoff between attributing purpose where the action is related to human volition (structuring CDOs or fouling in basketball), on one side, and attributing purpose to forces of nature (electrons and antibodies). Kant's point in the Third Critique was that it's really hard to put aside the idea of a "designer" or "purpose" when looking at forces of nature, even when there is no (and never will be) any empirical basis for believing there is a Designer (hence, our beliefs that there IS an order to the universe, even if not Designed, and principles like Ockham's Razor). So if Cora, a scientist, can react to the antibodies by inferring purpose and viciousness, no wonder that people can find the same in basketball fouling or complex Wall Street gambling, whether or not the underlying metaphors and meanings are really warranted.