I’ve talked about rules in different contexts in various posts, such as “rules to live by” http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/rules-to-live-by/ which are actually the rules that I set out to explain how I interpret the Biblical texts, or basic guiding principles such as the “Golden Rule” which I have discussed several times including here — http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/reciprocity/ Rules serve many different purposes – generally to regulate fairly well defined activities. So, for example, the rules of football or basketball keep order, as well as establishing the objectives of the games. Before the rules of football were codified it was not possible to have coherent matches. Without rules all you had were rowdy mobs chasing a ball through the streets and creating mayhem. Gaining possession of the ball and keeping it for as long as possible was about the only objective. Now . . . is a modern match of Association football between established professional teams more satisfying than a bunch of hooligans racing after a ball through the streets and destroying all in their path? Opinions vary, I suppose.
In all walks of life we encounter rules: school, work, government, grammar, science . . . you name it. They help keep order. Mathematics, for example, cannot exist without clear rules, and mathematics is extremely useful in all manner of ways. Our bank balances would be a complete disaster if the rules of addition and subtraction could be changed at whim. Of course that’s just a very simple example. The most complex of mathematical systems all rest on really fundamental rules, and without them mathematics (and science with it) would crumble. Establishing those rules is, in fact, an extremely difficult enterprise which it has taken centuries to sort out.
Rules that govern our lives in society are very complex but we grasp the basics without a lot of dispute: don’t steal, don’t drive too fast, pay your taxes, etc. etc. Some rules are broken at your peril, but breaking some is both creative and enjoyable – and not illegal. The rules of grammar are a clear example of the latter. When people break the rules of grammar in daily life I usually get annoyed, although I don’t often say anything about it. When writing professionally I simply can’t break grammar rules; copy editors won’t let me. Poets, on the other hand break the rules, not just with impunity, with a joyful glee. Inasmuch as I have a favorite poet it would be e.e.cummings not least because his rule breaking is masterful, not only with syntax but also semantics. A small sample:
a)s w(e loo)k
You have to look at this for some time before you realize that you can read it, and it makes sense (sort of). You need a warped mind.
The thing is that a lot of the rules we live by (including those of mathematics) are not laws, but conventions that are convenient or comfortable. Some philosophers will disagree with me about the status of mathematics but I stand by the claim. With mathematics, as with most rules, you had better know what you are doing before you break them. You can’t just declare that 2 plus 2 equals 5 and get away with it, and we can’t all be e.e.cummings (his imitators are universally dreadful). To break rules creatively you have to be very smart, very knowledgeable, and, above all, have an ultimate objective in breaking them that outweighs the purpose of the rules in the first place. There’s the rub.
The thing is that innovators often have to break rules in order to come up with their innovations in the first place. But even in fields, such as the physical sciences, where innovation is of great importance, the herd follows the rules, and the majority of those who don’t follow them get ridiculed or ignored. It’s only once in a very great while that a truly creative genius breaks the rules to reveal something new and exciting, and over time the new innovation gets enshrined as a new set of rules.
Here for me is the big intellectual challenge. Modern science takes as its foundation the notion that the universe is governed by strict rules (which cannot be broken), and it is the function of science to discover these rules. At one time, Isaac Newton’s day especially, they were called “laws” (e.g. Law of gravity, Laws of motion, Laws of optics, etc.) but science has gained a shred of humility since then and now refers to its propositions concerning the rules of the universe as theories, leaving the door open a crack to the possibility that later scientists will modify them. They are not using the term “theory,” as a lot of stupid people believe, in opposition to “fact” or as a synonym for “speculation.” The term “scientific theory” means a proposition that has been held up to rigorous testing over a long period of time, and holds water. My question: What if the absolutely foundational idea that there are universal, natural rules is mistaken? What if there are no rules? Rather more to the point: What if there are natural rules, but there are also exceptions now and again? That is, Is it conceivable that nature is capable of breaking its own rules?
These questions land us in some very murky territory. For example, does nature have a higher order of rules for (occasionally) breaking everyday ones? This is much the same as saying that an emergency vehicle driver can break traffic rules under certain circumstances, but there are still rules in place. An ambulance driver can be prosecuted for reckless driving for driving too fast and killing someone en route to the hospital, even though breaking the speed limit is acceptable under the circumstances. There is a rule of safety that is of a higher order than the traffic laws. Where does this hierarchy of rules stop? Is there yet another rule that is higher than the rule of safety?
Well, I can go round and round with this, leading you through a philosophical labyrinth explored by Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kurt Gödel and others, but I’ll spare you. Uncovering, through science, certain regularities of nature has been monumentally important in the development of technology, and that should be enough evidence to be able to assert with confidence that the methods of science work. But it is still quite possible that the idea that the universe is rule driven is a delusion fostered by the way our senses and brains work, coupled with the traditions of our culture. Even if that were true I’m still stuck in a hole, unfortunately. I’m as limited by the particulars of my brain, senses, and culture as the next person. I may be able to think outside the box now and again, but it’s a very small box, and, even if I escape for a time, I’m still inside a bigger box. I venture to say, without knowing what I am talking about, that a very, very few spiritual leaders, such as the Buddha, have managed to transcend ALL boxes. Those people do not come along often, and those of us still inside one box or another, no matter how big, really can’t grasp what they are saying most of the time.