The Urge to Do It Over… When You Can’t

Say you’re searching for a cure for insomnia. A measure of success might be if a remedy works over and over. But what if you’re studying the extinction of the dinosaurs? You can’t go killing off the dinosaurs over and over. So what do you do?

Reproducibility can be key to learning. But what if that is impractical? 

What we can do with the dinosaurs is that we can “start out” by describing what is reproducible and then make arguments in terms of that. So we can drop a big rock on a pile of earth and see how the dust flies into the air, and we can repeat how dust in the air occludes the light, and we can demonstrate how plants need light to live and how animals need to eat plants or other animals. Such an explanation (that a meteor killed the dinosaurs) is preferable to speculating something like the dragons ate up all the dinosaurs. But it is still an argument—it is not subjecting the issue itself to reproducibility—so we might end having to change our minds later on.

And what I want to discuss here is how we can apply a similar approach to a lot of other issues, as well. When presented with a problem, we can “start out” by looking for reproducibility and then expand on that to achieve new understandings in areas that are not themselves reproducible.

I am sure that there are many other ways of learning. But what I am going to investigate in this essay is how this approach might be applied to some interesting examples which I will discuss presently. We can already see how it seems to apply in many daily-life situations. For instance, in learning to walk, or learning a foreign language, or how to draw, we start by repeating what we can do over again. But the point is not to retrace the same steps, or say the same words, or draw the same picture every time. No, the point is to take what we have learned to do over again and apply it to novel situations, so as to step into new locations, or to make new phrases, or to draw different pictures. But part of how we have learned to explore novel and unique issues is by “starting” with what we can do over again.

And that makes sense if we realize that what we are learning is how to foster change in a world that is itself changing. The world is not static. And the easiest way to systematically understand change is to start by seeing what we can do over again. Yet as I described regarding science in the first part of this essay, the point is not merely repetition itself but to discern what we have to do—how we have to set up the situation—in order to make that action repeatable. It is because things are arranged in a certain way that certain actions become repeatable, so an aspect of learning becomes to recognize the fuller implications of a setup.

We can see that, for instance, in learning to make a plan. A plan is about how to set up situations so that, if things work reproducibly as they have in the past, then we will get the result that we desire. The plan is “made out of” how we have organized what we hope to do over again. Of course, things don’t always go according to plan. But that is because we have only “started out” with what is reproducible, and we are using that to explore novel non-reproducible situations.

Again, I fully agree that there are other ways of learning. The way that most people—myself included—learned that the earth is not flat but round is by being told as much (which is how many people can get the erroneous impression that science is a set of facts instead of being about reproducibility).

The advantage of this approach (starting out by looking for reproducibility and then describing other non-reproducible issues as grounded in that reproducibility) is that it enables us to see the world in terms of change rather than stasis. We are interested in how the butterfly flies, not just how it eternally stays the same in a Platonic heaven.

And a second advantage is that it avoids the problems associated with using either induction or intuition to ascertain our insights. When we gain our insights from seeing what we can do over again (within certain stated tolerances)—and when we look for the setup of circumstances that enables those actions to happen repeatedly—then that is a different methodology for finding new knowledge than using either induction or intuition. It thereby avoids both Hume’s “problem of induction” and Popper’s proposed alternative that knowledge is about making guesses. What I am proposing is that we can “start out with” looking for reproducibility and then expand on it in unique novel ways (not that I am opposed to using induction and intuition, as well).

I will shortly come to some examples of the utility of this approach. But first I will offer a fuller heads-up as to where I am going with this argument.


My larger project in these posts is to show how energy (when understood the way that science describes it) can serve as a this-worldly alternative to otherworldly Platonic Forms and external laws. The Platonic approach posits entities said to preexist the physical Universe, and to endure outside of it, and to direct what happens here within the physical Universe; and further, these outside entities are said to be more real than the physical Universe. But energy is a phenomenon of the physical world itself, so in that sense explanations based on energy are more “naturalistic” than are explanations premised on phenomena external to this world.

But how does energy do this? How does energy create the features of the world—and how these features are related to one another—rather than these features being reflections of pure essences in a Platonic heaven and acting as per “obeying” laws external to the Universe itself?

It works because of two qualities of energy. Energy animates that which possesses it, thus creating motion and change, instead of stasis. And energy has the ability to create arrangements of itself, and these arrangements foster all sorts of features by virtue of how they are organized. A simple example is how air molecules, by being in a container, now have the additional feature of “pressure” from being in that arrangement. Further, the amount of pressure is related to the size of its container (its volume), since as the volume decreases, the crowding among the randomly moving air molecules increases, thereby raising the pressure. Hence, the setup of this arrangement also creates why the features are related. It is because the same situation that creates one feature (pressure or volume) also creates the other feature, so that, as one feature changes, so must the other.

There is no need to posit that these features or their relationship exist because of reflecting some pure essences or dictates up in a Platonic heaven. The naturalistic explanation suffices to explain and predict anything that we might try to explain and predict Platonically.

Likewise, it becomes possible to see this phenomenon all through science and nature. The role that arrangement plays in making repeatable motion is even evident in causality, as is apparent from the iconic example of dominos standing on end and falling into one another. What makes it work—what makes it so that one event (one falling domino) leads to the next and the next—is the spacing of the dominos, in how they are arranged.

This role for arrangement even shows up in quantum mechanics, in its derivations regarding a “particle in a box” (a subject of a future essay).

And so I hope that my point is becoming apparent. When science seeks to describe, not just what it can do over again, but the setup of circumstances that enables it to do something over again, it thereby is acknowledging the role of arrangement in making what can happen. It is illustrating in a profound way how science makes this-worldly explanations rather than otherworldly (Platonic) explanations.

This is not the place to give the whole long argument for naturalistic interpretations based on the behavior of energy, but I have been giving numerous other examples in these posts. Over and over, we see that there is a role for arrangement in making what happens, even though this role of arrangement is traditionally ignored when describing the world in terms of pure essences that are automatically following rules.

Indeed, although it is not necessary to my argument, it is possible to see complexity as built this way. When science makes its gismos, what it wants to achieve is reliability. And the easiest way to have reliability is to find the circumstances that enable you to repeat something overt again. So we make gismos by assembling together the circumstances which enable reliably repeatable actions. We can assemble lots of different such circumstances to make very complicated actions that are repeatable. And it becomes possible to see nature as having already done the same—it has found and assembled the circumstances that enable it to do things over again—although with nature it is not about creating “reliability” (a human trait) but about establishing “regularity” from how certain setups enable repeatable actions. Then we can describe that regularity with our equations and mechanisms.

A cell, for instance, is a vast organization of circumstances (temperature, acidity, osmolarity) that enable repeatable actions. The outcome of each action works to maintain the necessary circumstances for other repeatable actions to occur.

Or the arrangement of the solar system creates the regularly changing seasons, night and day, and the pattern of planetary travel that we view from earth.

Of course, there are some major differences between such a naturalistic view based on energy as compared with more traditional philosophical views. For instance, instead of Kantian “things-in-themselves,” we have “things-in-arrangements” creating how context counts. And instead of the equations describing external “rules” pushing things along from outside of the Universe, the equations are describing “relationships” (such as being proportional) among the features created by a setup (as in how, if volume changes, then given the setup so must the pressure change). And most of all, it is to see the world in terms of change rather than stasis.

Again, my premise here is that there are many ways of learning, but I am interested in exploring how, in developing explanations, plans, predictions, or skills, we might “start out with” looking for what is repeatable and searching for the arrangements of things that set up that repeatability. But then we can go on to explain what is novel and unique “in terms of” what we have found to be repeatable, even if the issue in question is itself not repeatable. I feel that that is consistent with finding ourselves situated in a world comprised of energy.

In other words, learning seems to entail bringing the reproducible lessons we have already acquired to bear onto new not-yet-experienced situations.


Below are some specific examples of how we might find such an approach to learning fruitful. Please take them as just ideas to play with and not as anything definite.

Tools.In a world of change, it makes sense to speak of tools because tools are instruments of change. When we learn to use a tool, such as a pliers or a screwdriver, we might first practice up on how to use them with a few simple cases. But the point is to become able to use them in other situations, and that will entail understanding the setup for which they are useful. We must learn to recognize the situations for which a tool might operate and then use the tool (at least initially) as we learned to use it in the past. Also, a tool need not be physical, such as language used for communication or the periodic table used for organizing chemistry. Yet the same arguments apply. They are about recognizing a situation and using the tool to change something about it, based on what we could do repeatedly with the tool in the past. I am unsure how Plato would describe a tool given how he sees what is real in terms of changelessness. But in a naturalistic world premised on energy, learning and knowledge include how to use tools to implement change.

Heuristics.We all use rules of thumb, even though we also know that by definition they do not always work out as we would like. We say to ourselves, “If this situation ever arises again, here is what I am going to do,” and we state it as a rule. As we go through life, we look for and invent such little rules to guide us; they are a means of being prepared. But what is our justification for doing so? The rule seems to be based on our past experience and on how that has led us to think that we can repeat a similar result if a similar situation arises again. A heuristic in the card game Bridge is “Second hand low, third hand high.” It doesn’t always work, but it tells us what to do if we otherwise have no idea. Yet to use the rule, we first have to recognize if the situation we are in is applicable to that rule. (Do we play second or play third?). So once again we see that the arrangement of the setup is what makes for the repeatable outcomes. Hence heuristics seems to be another example where we can “start out with” looking for repeatability and end up with a different form of understanding. We can end up with thinking in terms of rules (but also in terms of when the rules apply).

Generalizations.A similar argument can be made for generalities. We say that “fruit is sweet” because our past experience has showed us that that is repeatedly so. But instead of turning that into a rule, we make it into a general statement. Yet as with the heuristic, the generality helps us to prepare for future situations. In deciding what to eat, we can expect that fruit will be sweet, even if that is not always the case, as with lemons. So here we have “starting out with” looking for what is repeatable—the generality is grounded or justified by being repeatedly so—yet now the result ends up being used in a different way from a rule. With a generality, we end up making deductions or even formal syllogisms rather than obeying some command. It is a different way of expressing knowledge. When using generalities, we might start out in the first place by looking for commonalities rather than repeatability—we might begin by searching for what features are shared by things in certain categories—but again, to be of value a commonality has to occur over again in multiple instances. It is grounded in being repeatedly the case (and a syllogism even claims it is about “all” of something, every time). So it seems that generalizations are another example of how we can “start out with” searching for what is repeatable and then use it to expand into a new and different form of understanding.

Bigger Pictures. And besides expanding repeatability by expressing it as rules or generalizations, we can search for repeatability in bigger pictures. By a “bigger picture,” I mean what is beyond our immediate sense perception, such as existing on a higher level of scale or otherwise being in more than just the scene that we have in front of our eyes. An example of seeing repeatability in a bigger picture (an example that I discussed in an earlier post) is how oxygen enters the blood from the lungs. It doesn’t happen because the oxygen molecules are “obeying” some rule up in a Platonic heaven (“Thou shalt move into the blood”), as if matter could “obey” in the way that we humans do. Rather, all that happens is that the molecules move randomly in an immediate sense, producing an even mixing of the molecules. But that even mixing—in a slightly bigger picture—means that the molecules move from an area of higher concentration (in the lungs) to an area of lower concentration (in the blood), repeatedly so. What makes it happen is not a “law” but the arrangement of the setup—what makes the oxygen move from the lungs to the blood is how the lungs have a semipermeable membrane that is separating the air and blood and allowing oxygen to pass through it randomly. If we wanted to, we could note how this membrane also acts as a container and so creates the features of the partial pressure of oxygen in the lungs and the feature of its concentration in the blood vessel. (Without being contained, the molecules have neither pressure nor concentration). And so we could relate those two features in an equation. But the equation is not what makes it happen—the arrangement of the setup (plus the random action) is what creates the transport of oxygen into the blood—yet that movement of oxygen into the blood exists in a bigger picture than the immediate picture where there are just random actions.

Traditionally, it is often held that a bigger picture is just a concept and so not physically “real”—it is argued that only the immediate actions are “real” and that anything else is just our minds reading in to the situation—but we can address that argument by pointing to reproducibility. We can “really” measure the oxygen moving repeatedly in the bigger picture even as we also can “really” measure the immediate picture as full of randomness. And that makes sense given that arrangements are well-known for harboring different qualities simultaneously at different levels of scale.

That also illustrates how energy, in and of itself, just makes things move randomly. But because those actions occur within arrangements, higher order activities ensue. That phenomenon shows up writ large throughout science and the Universe.

Operational Truth.Truth can be about a way of changing, not just about a static eternal verity as Plato defined it. There can be truth in how the world changes one way and not another way. But that does not mean that there cannot be static truths subsequent to our descriptions of change. For instance, it might be true that in a certain case an unknown chemical proves to be ammonia. Yet that is subsequent to how we have set up a reproducible system of identifying chemicals. Or we might find that a certain proposition is valid—not contradictory—based on a formal system of logic such as set theory. The truth or falsity is subsequent to some reproducible theory, not about the discovery of some eternal verity in a Platonic heaven. Yet such subsequent descriptions of truth and falsity can be very handy, once grounded in a reproducible system. Further, there is no issue of relativism with reproducibility. The relativist claims that absolute truth is unknowable and so one person’s truth is as good as any other’s. But with operational truth, there is no question of it being knowable. Either you can do it over again, or you can’t. It’s demonstrable. Instead of being about a “correspondence” between what’s in our heads and the actual world, such a truth is grounded in what we can do over again, really.

IMAGE: This is a picture of another Christmas tree ornament painted on wood by artist Bridget O’Leary.

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