A nathem is a big book about a big topic: nothing less than the nature of the universe and of intelligence within it. The novel certainly has its share of action — but as befits its topic it is even more filled with argument. Neal Stephenson seems most interested in exploring a proposition that can be stated fairly simply: like the laws of nature it discovers, intelligence itself is the same throughout the universe.
If Pythagoras discovers his theorem here, the equivalent insight will be found elsewhere. If we have Platonists, empiricists, and logical positivists, similar schools of thought will be found wherever there is intelligence. Most science fiction involving contact with aliens, which is indeed the device that moves the plot of Anathem , is implicitly premised on at least some weak form of this proposition, though none that come to mind explore the question with quite the philosophical depth of Anathem.
Stephensonis, in this novel as always, a thoughtful and therefore thought-provoking author, and in presenting us with the arrangements on Arbre he allows us to reflect on how the motives that drive scientific and technological development relate to what can be done about the problems that arise therefrom, and on how dealing with such problems will be influenced by what we think about historical progress.
Science and technology flourished together and in full cooperation with business, military, and government; on Arbre this period is called the Praxic Age. Details are sketchy, but global climate change and the creation of a more unstable climate are certainly part of the picture. In response to what were taken to be the proven dangers of unfettered scientific research, scientists were segregated or segregated themselves; the point is to some degree contested from the rest of society and thenceforward live under monastic-like discipline in carefully controlled cloisters.
The discipline of the concents limits what the avout can possess no technology from the outside world, for example , what they can study and with what tools, what kinds of plants they can grow, and how much contact they can have with the outside world and indeed with each other. So far as we know, the way of life in each math is essentially the same, built around rituals that are performed in common but with each math segregated from the others.
Men and women avout work and live together and may form various kinds of attachments. However, while the point is made repeatedly that the differences between avout and those who live in the outside world are more a matter of nurture than nature, the avout food supply contains a birth-control agent to prevent any accidental or deliberate effort to breed super-scientists. The biggest challenge would seem to be keeping the Thousander maths going, but we eventually find that they live unusually long lives, and that abandoned infants are sometimes sent into their math so that they will not contaminate it with outside knowledge.
The Concent of Saunt Edhar on which the first sections of the book focus, like others we later learn of, is divided not only by the maths, but by a variety of sects within the maths based on philosophical divergences or different foci of study. Like our academics, these avout are relentless sectarians.
Formally supervising the whole system are hierarchs, avout who have greater contact with the outside world, and over the local hierarchs stands an Inquisition that travels freely. We know for certain that mathic discipline is imperfect and we have reason to suspect, particularly in relation to the rarely-seen Thousanders, that it might even be less perfect than we directly observe.
Nonetheless, on the whole it seems to operate effectively. The result of all these measures is to slow the accumulation of scientific data, and to sever the link between science and technology. Over the centuries that follow the Terrible Events, various additional restrictions are placed on the mathic world, such as a ban on genetic engineering.
They have little to work with except telescopes, chalkboards, paper from genetically engineered trees that produce paper leaves , and pen — and their own minds, which they systematically develop through memorizing and participating in various forms of more or less Socratic dialogue. Still, the worst one might say is that it is in many respects a somewhat degraded version of our own world today. The intellectual level of the outside world is not high, despite the fact that the one-year maths serve as colleges for the upper classes.
Commercially and militarily motivated technological change occurs, even though the artisan class is not interested in the newest technology but in being able to comprehend, develop, adapt, and repair its own existing tools. The artisans we come to know best would be very unhappy to be as dependent on anyone as the avout are on the Ita.
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On Arbre, science and religion share a common father, which allows Stephenson to present what is, for a work of science fiction, a highly nuanced picture of the role of religion in life and its relationship to science. But this topic would be a fit theme for discussion all on its own.
Despite the fact — or perhaps because of it? Still, when Raz is called upon to leave his concent and travel on the outside, he observes a good deal more decaying than being built up. He himself notes that this kind of ebb and flow is cyclical, like the unstable climate.
What is required to have that stability is cutting off scientists from the outside world and to some extent from each other, cutting them off from most kinds of useful technology and technological development from them, and having a non-scientific culture that is more or less hostile to them by default. The scientists must believe that on balance their isolation is for their own good, and there must be a way for them to exercise their inquisitive minds. Assuming even a rough equivalence between Earth and Arbre years, Arbre represents a rather distant human future.
The bad news is that Arbre, with only a few notable exceptions, has certainly not achieved anything like the extraordinary developments that science and technology seem to promise us today, let alone what science fiction routinely expects of so distant a future. With few exceptions, there is no radical extension of the human lifespan or of human capabilities.
Arbre has not colonized and environmentally engineered other planets. We should perhaps not be surprised that such stability has costs of its own. But for the avout these costs are perhaps not as high as we might think. It is true that the sacks exact a terrible cost, particularly the last one. It is true that some avout chafe at restrictions and are disciplined or expelled for breaking rules.
But the avout who actually engage in research not all do so; the less able are shunted off into useful work around the concent do so with ingenuity heightened by their limited resources and the intense focus that follows from their lack of distraction. Their discipline produces orderly habits of thought and action, along with a fair degree of comradely devotion to their brothers and sisters, sects, maths, and concents. Within the broad limits imposed on them, they seem to have freedom to choose to study whatever inquiries interest them, unmolested by disapproving non-scientists, and uninfluenced by commercial motives or external funding streams although there is politicking among the various sects.
Finally, they have a patience that comes from having a very long-term perspective on the significanceof their own contributions within the larger mathic effort at understanding the world. S tephenson seems to think that a certain kind of person, with a certain kind of education, will find ways to answer the questions that interest him whatever the circumstances; for example, without calculating machines the avout have developed the ability to model calculations using songs.
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So we are not surprised when one character remarks that the avout spend their lives learning how to learn; they specialize without becoming narrow specialists. In the scheme of things, that is unlikely to strike many of us as the worst of fates, and suggests how the mathic system preserves what is best in the spirit of scientific inquiry as we know it.
That is not to say that the mathic system represents a model we should attempt to emulate in order to avoid our own version of the Terrible Events. In the long run, therefore, as evidence accumulates and factions wax and wane, the social influences on science will be filtered out, and rightly so. What is the role of the social in science? If one consults science textbooks, one will find that the social dimension of scientific knowledge is conspicuously absent.
Science is supposed to reflect the way the world really is, independent of our petty human lives.
It is, in the classical view, the epitome of a rational endeavor, free from social influences. Of course, science is carried out by human beings, but their individual backgrounds and social lives are simply taken to be irrelevant. What matters are the intellectual merits of a theory, not who conceived it. What matters is the evidence, not who gathered it. This stark contrast between the social and the rational can be found in philosophical accounts of science as well.
Because social factors are rendered invisible in the end products of science, many philosophers have underestimated their constructive role in the acquisition of scientific knowledge. In recent decades, sociologists and historians have tried to bring science back to earth, but many of them have unwittingly bought into the same simplistic opposition.
Social influences on science have been relished by its cynical critics and resisted by its admirers, and for the same reason: the fear or hope that it would destroy the credentials of science.
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Rutten, S. Blancke, and R. Soetaert, Purdue University Press we discuss the historical roots of this opposition, culminating in the sorry spectacle of the science wars. When do we feel the need to explain why someone beliefs something? Not all beliefs held by our fellow human beings appear to produce an epistemic itch. People believe that dolphins are mammals, that the earth orbits around the sun, and that World War II ended in , but we rarely wonder how they arrived at such homely truths.
Beliefs such as these are just obvious, and no sane person would dispute them. That said, who told you when WWII ended?
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Where did you acquire the belief that dolphins are mammals, or that the earth goes around the sun? Your sources for these convictions are hard to track down. Memories of these facts are called semantic by psychologists, to distinguish them from episodic memories, related to things that happen to us.
Episodic memories carry a tag with time, place, and the situation we acquired them. Not so for semantic memories, likely because doing so would be a waste of brain resources. Take the belief that coal is black. If we ask you what your reasons are for believing that, you would probably be puzzled. You could have learned it in any number of ways. Anyone in doubt about the color of coal can quickly retrieve the answer through any number of sources.
Because the truth of such beliefs is obvious, we rarely question how other people acquired them, or how they can justify them. It seems as if such beliefs just drop out of thin air, without much in the way of a causal history. That said, how do we account for other kinds of beliefs as held by others, of course? Beliefs that are false, quirky, idiosyncratic, or plainly irrational produce an epistemic itch.
We want to explain how people end up embracing them. Who told him such nonsense? Did he fall for one of those conspiracy theories circulating on the internet? We resort to special explanations only when something goes wrong. True beliefs that are part of common knowledge are taken at face value, but false and foolish beliefs cry out for an explanation.
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This is where social and cultural explanations come in. Such explanations, however, are not invoked when we account for true and justified beliefs. Only when rationality breaks down, it seems, a space is opened up for psychological explanations to fill. We seem to think that there is an association between the irrational and the social, but not between the rational and the social. In the classical view, science is the epitome of reason.