We are the champions of the world

8 03 2015

Might makes right—that is the basis of morality.

That’s not all there is to morality, but lack the might, and you lack the ability to determine the right.

(And as for God(s) as the basis of morality? What is he/she/they/it but Mighty? the Mightiest of the Mighty?)

Might makes right is also the basis of knowledge. Of course, what counts as “might” varies considerably across time and space: might could mean “ability to summon spirits” or “to discern the secrets of nature” or, of course, to point a sword or an axe or a gun at a person’s head and say “believe” or “recant”; it could also refer to people or resources or the production of results.

Thomas Kuhn referred, famously, to paradigms: scientists operate within a particular paradigm or set of theories of how the world works, and new scientists are inculcated with and succeed according to their ability to produce new knowledge based on elaboration of those theories. Over time, however, those elaborations may run into trouble: the theory leads to x result, but y is what is witnessed. There may be some way to accommodate these anomalies, but eventually the anomalies will overwhelm the paradigm; upon the presentation of a new theory which can account not only for the old knowledge, but also the anomalies, the paradigm will shift.

(Imre Lakatos attempted to meliorate the harshness of this shift (and to mediate between Kuhn and Karl Popper’s strict falsificationism) with a notion of “research programmes” and whether they are “progressive” or “degenerative”, but he, too, allows that new research programs may emerge.)

Older or established members of a field may not accept a new paradigm or research program, but, as Max Planck famously observed, “science advances one funeral at a time”. Einstein, one of the most intelligent men of the 20th century, perhaps ever, just as famously never accepted quantum theory (“God does not play dice with the universe”), but he couldn’t foil it; he is dead, and the theory lives.

What, then, is the paradigm or research program but a form of might? It declares what counts as true and false, what is considered evidence and how to make sense of that evidence, what counts as science—and thus knowledge—at all.

None of this is meant to be argumentative, but axiomatic. This doesn’t mean there is no knowledge or no true knowledge, but that what counts as knowledge and truth is bound up in the conditions of the production of said knowledge and truth. Knowledge depends upon what we say knowledge is (“intersubjective agreement”), and there are a lot of ways to say it.

I’m a fan of science, and consider its methods to be powerful in eliciting knowledge about the natural world. I don’t think it can tell me much about poetry, but if I want to understand how a fertilized egg can turn into a person, then I’ll turn to a biology textbook rather than, say, a book of poetry.

Even the most potent forms of knowledge—the mightiest of the mighty—have their limits (see: embryology won’t teach you much about rhyme and meter), and potency itself is no guarantee against the loss or overthrow of a particular form of knowledge, an insight long known by tyrants, torturers, and con men alike.

Knowledge, for all of its power (Bacon), is also fragile: because there is nothing necessary or autonomous about any one form of knowledge, it can be lost or shattered or tossed away—which means it must be tended, and, when conditions dictate, defended.

All of which is a very long way to saying that the notion of “Let the public decide what’s the truth” with regard to the existence of climate change is a terrible, terrible idea, and as an attack on science itself, deserves to to be driven back to the gaseous bog from whence it came.

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It’s all too much

3 08 2012

The point is that evidence can be unreliable, and therefore you should use as little of it as possible. . . . I mean, people don’t realize that not only can data be wrong in science, it can be misleading. There isn’t such a thing as a hard fact when you’re trying to discover something. It’s only afterwards that the facts become hard.*

~Francis Crick

It’s no surprise that Crick is a theorist, is it?

I quite like this quote, and (I think) used it in my dissertation, but it also makes me nervous.

First, why I like it: It puts theory first, forces you to think of the evidence in terms of a theory in which it makes sense. If you let the evidence go first, you may end up hiking into a dead end, both because you’re misinterpreting the evidence as evidence (i.e., taking as fact something which is not, yet) and because you miss other bits because you don’t have a way of seeing those bits as something which matters.

But this is where the unease kicks in: Theory can mislead, as well. Thomas Kuhn noted this in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and his arguments on paradigm shift, although Max Planck had the pithiest observation on this phenomenon: “Science progresses one funeral at a time.”

So, theory leads, and theory misleads.

Richard Rhodes, in his magisterial The Making of the Atomic Bomb, ticks off any number of discoveries which were missed by those with the most data because they weren’t able to see the data correctly.
The most well-known story is that of Frederick Smith, who didn’t discover X rays:

. . . not so unlucky in legend as the Oxford physicist Frederick Smith, who found that photographic plates kept near a cathode-ray tube were liable to be fogged and merely told his assistant to move them to another place. . . . Röntgen isolated the effect by covering his cathode-ray tube with black paper. When a nearby screen of fluorescent material still glowed he realized that whatever was causing the screen to glow was passing through the paper and the intervening air. If he held his hand between the covered tube and the screen, his hand slightly reduced the glow on the screen but in the dark shadow he could see its bones.

So is this a case of theory leading, or misleading? Or is this a third case, where a willingness to follow the evidence led to a hitherto overlooked phenomenon?

My guess: all three. Physics at the turn of the century was in the start of a creative tumult, a half-century active quake zone of discovery: old theories cracked under the pressure of irreconcilable data, new theories upended the known world and brought forth phenomenon which had previously hidden among the unknown unknowns, and all of this piled up and into the felt urgency to explain not just this new world, but a whole new universe.

There was too much of everything, a glorious and disorienting plenty on which one of the finest collection of minds in human history feasted; is it any surprise that pursuit of this course meant that dish was neglected?

All of this is a long way of saying I’m having a bitch of a time trying to make sense of my foray into medieval history. I don’t have a theory, don’t have a direction, and while I’m unbothered by—hell, actively defend—a certain amount of dilettantism, I’ve wandered enough to have become frustrated by my wanderings.

I’m not too worried, though. As frustrating as frustration is, it works for me, (eventually) crowbarring me out of my “it’ll come” complacency and into a “go get it” activity—which is to say, I’ll come up with a theory which will guide me to look at this, not at that.

I’m not doing the [kind of] science Crick did, so his observations on the process of discovery don’t necessarily translate across the fields, but he is right that if you’re going to find anything, it helps to know what you’re looking for.

(*As quoted in Horace Freeland Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation)





Negation—wha. . .what?

18 05 2011

Perhaps I should not have used the term “negation”.

It carries a philosophical load—which is fine, and not unrelated to my use of it—but I wanted (also) to emphasize the more prosaic, i.e., practical, aspects of negation, as in: to negate, to eliminate as an option or consideration.

The germ theory of disease negated theories of miasma, Lavoisier’s experiments with oxygen negated phlogiston, industrial production of beakers and test tubes negated the need for scientists to blow their own glassware (which further negated the need for the knowledge of blowing glassware), fuel injection will likely negate carburetors, etc.

So negation could mean “overturn” (as with germs > miasmas or oxygen > phlogiston) or “leave behind” (as with glass-blowing and carburetors), that is, to negate may be to disprove or it could mean to render irrelevant or trivial.

Now, these practical effects may reverberate ontologically, such that the negation of the practical may serve to negate an entire way of thinking or being, or simply to serve as a signal of the instability of that way of thinking/being. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, with its discussion of paradigm shifts rendering previous modes of scientific practice inert, lays out a version of global negation, while current questions of the role of cyber-technologies signal uncertainty over what counts as “real”.

John Donne’s “An Anatomy of the World” (1611) is often quoted—hell, I quoted it a while back—to exemplify the agonized confusion over the discoveries of the natural philosophers:

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and the earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and relation:

Natural philosophy took for itself the name science, and modernity marched on. The laments for the old world died with those who once lived in it.

William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” clearly echoes this lament, with the opening

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

The times they are a-changin’, indeed.

History is not a line, or rather, history only holds the line, such that events may loosen or smash that hold and the contents of that history scatter.

Some of those pieces are lost and even of those which are found, the meaning of the piece, precisely because it has been scattered, can only be guessed at. It is shard of pottery uncovered in the desert, hinting at something which once was, now gone.

But not everything is lost: it could be hiding in that proverbial plain sight. I’m much taken with the notion of the palimpsest—that is, of a kind of tablet which has been inscribed then scrubbed clean to be reinscribed—largely because I think that the previous inscriptions are still there, that, like words which have been erased from a page, the impression lingers.

Heidegger in The Question Concerning Technology decries the transformation of the Rhine from a river in a landscape into a “water power supplier”, that is, it is no longer itself but a source of reserve power for a hydroelectric plant. Perhaps it could be understood as that river in a landscape, he muses, but “In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.”

Those who complain that Manhattan has turned into a theme park and that Times Square has lost all its gritty reality have not a little bit in common with Herr Heidegger.

I have a great deal of sympathy for this feeling, but even more skepticism for such sympathy; as I’ve mentioned more times than you probably care to read, we’re never who we’ve been.

So, again, I’m not taking the side of the past against the present, not least because I have no basis for such a taking of sides. Again, I simply want to trace the history of modern history.

I can’t raise all the inscriptions on the palimpsest, but maybe I can see some of what has been left behind.





Reason will not save us. Or maybe it will.

13 03 2011

Like wiping an eraser across the land: The New York Times allows you to see before and after satellite photos of the devastation in Japan.

Stunning.

~~~

The planet does not care about us. Nature does not care about us.

Any care in this world begins and ends with us.

~~~

Errol Morris does not understand Thomas Kuhn.

Part of this non-understanding is due to Kuhn; part of this non-understanding is due to Morris.

(I am not the only one who thinks so.)

~~~

Judith Warner confuses the consequences of inquiry with inquiry.

Michael Bérubé is not confused, but did he really not understand the implications of epistemological nihilism?

I am not a genius—repeat, I am not a genius—yet even I, as a 2nd or 3rd-year grad student was able to suss out the political dangers of such nihilism.

I wrote a paper for a course on the philosophy of knowledge in which I (budding-but-not-yet-full-epist-nihilist) noted that the slipperiness of fact was a constant problem which must constantly be confronted. That “fact” and “evidence” and “reason” could be used as weapons meant that one must be ready to contest the deployment of such weapons.

This was a problem for me, for awhile: If everything is up for grabs, how can one move?

I solved this particular problem by moving.

Yes, there’s more, much more, involved than this, but this isn’t the place for an explication of my solution. I brought this up simply to signal my recognition that, yes, this is a problem.

I’ll try to dig out the particular paper, but I believe I used an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Captain Picard is tortured by a Cardassian; his torturer, in an attempt to break him, wants him to say that there are five lights when there are only four. Upon his release, he turns to his torturer and emphasizes that there are, in fact, only four lights.

Later, however, he admits to Counselor Troi that he did see five lights.

Given that people can be coerced into not seeing what is in front of them—that truth as an intersubjective activity means that it is vulnerable to domination—means that truth is subject to political debate.

Upshot:  those of us invested in particular forms of and inquiries into truth must defend against assaults on those forms and inquiries.

I got this, as a smart-enough grad student, and I’d bet that I wasn’t the only one.

But Bérubé and Warner are shocked—shocked!—that  “it turns out that the critique of scientific “objectivity” and the insistence on the inevitable “partiality” of knowledge can serve the purposes of climate-change deniers and young-Earth creationists quite nicely.”

No shit, Sherlock.

Okay, so that wasn’t very nice. Bérubé  is a lit professor and was busy mining his own particular veins of concern; that’s one of the benefits of scholarship, after all: to forsake the surface and plunge below. Conversely, it was really not such a stretch for me, as a budding political theorist, to have recognized the political implications of anti-foundationalism.

Anyway, Bérubé is now aware that excavations below can lead to instability up top:  “[P]erhaps humanists [read: humanities professors]  are beginning to realize that there is a project even more vital than that of the relentless critique of everything existing, a project to which they can contribute as much as any scientist–the project of making the world a more humane and livable place.”

Just so.

There is more to this story, of course, not least of which is a defense of such excavations given the possibilities of instability; the short version is that the cracks were always there.

The long answer awaits.

~~~

What makes NPR liberal? What makes any media outlet liberal or conservative?

On the Media didn’t quite ask this, but in a segment with Ira Glass (who insists NPR is not liberal), they introduced the possibility that they will ask this question, as well as, perhaps, whether it matters.

Still would have liked to have heard them discuss O’Keefe’s edits of the vid.

~~~

I am old. I like to go fast.

That I put the “I am old” statement first tells you that I blame my age for my hesitations regarding speed.

Whatever.

I took my road bike out yesterday—first time in years—for a coupla’ spins around Prospect Park. Oh, every time I get on this bike I marvel at how quick it is. Unlike my road bike, this baby just sssshoooms when I crank the pedals.

That light narrow frame, those smooth skinny tires, the aerodynamism of the hunched-over posture. . . ack! That light narrow frame means it’s less stable! Those smooth skinny tires are apt to skip across the road! In my hunch I can’t see as well!

Ack!

No, I didn’t wipe out. (I will: I wipe out at least once every biking season, usually because I panic and can’t untangle my shoes from the clips fast enough. I try to have this happen away from traffic.) But the marvel at the speed competed with the concern that things are more likely to go wrong at speed.

Prudence is a fine thing, but so, too, is the exhilaration which follows recklessness.

Anyway, I’d rather not be afraid, and think that the more I ride the road bike, the less anxious I’ll be.

All the shit I have yet to learn and still, all the shit I have to re-learn.

Criminy.