Given my double passion for science and philosophy, the problem of clarifying the links between the two and between what I refer to as local orabstract modes of thought (such as the sciences, the arts and politics) has always been of utmost importance to me. To treat this problem, I wished to challenge both the solutions that subject these different modes to philosophical authority (be it ontological, transcendental, epistemological, encyclopedic or other), and the solutions which – inversely – subject philosophy to the model furnished by one of these modes, to the detriment of the others (as, for example, Husserl’s conception of philosophy as archi-science, Heidegger’s conception of philosophy as archi-poetry, or Levinas’s conception of philosophy as archi-ethics). In Benjamin’s theory of translation, I found a solution capable of satisfying two presumably irreconcilable constraints: 1) that of not yielding on the delocalized or transversal nature of philosophical work compared to different local modes of thought – and thus avoiding any potential identification with one of these modes; and 2) that of refusing any dominant position of philosophy toward said modes of thought. In short, Benjamin’s text allowed me to construe the connections between local modes of thought and philosophy by following the model offered by the connection between national languages and the regulatory idea of a delocalized and voluntarily impure language produced by the work of transposition and transfer undertaken by “translation”. To translate, it’s not enough to flit through the space of languages: you must master each of the languages involved by giving yourself over to their irreducible sovereignty. The conception of philosophy that results is that of an organon of composition between the different local modes of thought – an organon which, rather than speaking about these modes, must make possible free circulation between them. In this way, the philosopher’s task is to compose the “untranslatables” within a vaster linguistic space in which each language finds its place and time. The philosopher is the stalker of this space. In Lacanian terms, we might say that philosophical love alone is able to supplement the non-relationship between the different modes of thought – that is, to potentiate their connectedness while affirming their irreducible “untranslatability”. Philosophy alone is able to construct mediators – herein lies its truly angelic dimension – capable of probing the interzones that separate and connect the various modes of thought, in order to incessantly build what I refer to as a musaic language, following on from Benjamin.
Scientists -- don't you just love them!? This via the Guardian (thanks Robin):
The despicable acts of Count Dracula, the unending selflessness of Dorothea in Middlemarch and Mr Darcy's personal transformation in Pride and Prejudice helped to uphold social order and encouraged altruistic genes to spread through Victorian society, according to an analysis by evolutionary psychologists.
Their research suggests that classic British novels from the 19th century not only reflect the values of Victorian society, they also shaped them. Archetypal novels from the period extolled the virtues of an egalitarian society and pitted cooperation and affability against individuals' hunger for power and dominance. For example in George Eliot's Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke turns her back on wealth to help the poor, while Bram Stoker's nocturnal menace, Count Dracula, comes to represent the worst excesses of aristocratic dominance.
As my friend Robin wrote to me: "as an example of the astonishing shallowness with which 'scientists' conceive of literature, it takes some beating... but as an example of 'bad science', well, I reckon it's unbeatable."
Increasingly I am coming to feel that Continental social and political theory – especially in its French inflection coming out of the Althusserian, Foucaultian, Lacanian, and structuralist schools – woefully simplifies the social and therefore is led to ask the wrong sorts of questions where questions of political change is concerned ... [we] need to look at the variety of different social formations from individuals, to small associations like groups (the blog collective for instance), to larger groupings and institutions, to global interrelations, treating none of these as hegemonizing all the others, but instead discerning their varying temporalities, organizations, inter-relations, points of antagonism, and so on. This, I think, is far closer to Marx’s own vision – or at least the spirit of his analyses in texts like Grundrisse and Capital.
E.P. Thompson’s critique of Althusser in his excellent The Poverty of Theory (1978) hangs in the air here — and rightly so. Thompson's account is still sharp and wholly relevant: empirical, local and humanistic (and I know that that is a bogey word!)
With regard to evolutionary theory highlighting the possible ways that change can occur in societies, the work of Chris Knight (Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture) shows the way. Knight argues that we became human via a revolutionary sex strike ... you’ll learn more from radicalanthropologygroup.org.
There is an excerpt of Lee Smollin's The Trouble with Physics over at FT.com. Smollin was briefly interviewed on the BBC's Leading Edge yesterday. The book, in case you don't know, is an attack on the ubiquity of String Theory in physics (cf. Peter Woit's Not Even Wrong). String Theory is the attempt, within physics, to find a unifying Theory of Everything. The very idea, to me, is wrong-headed, but A New Theory of the Universe ("Biocentrism builds on quantum physics by putting life into the equation") has, nonetheless, just been proposed by Robert Lanza.
A hundred thousand years ago (± thirty thousand years) human primate society was replaced by a human speaking community, shifting priorities from Darwinian issues to those of a symbolic culture ... The human speaking community is radically different [from primate society], according to Knight. Members who are in need of assistance can expect it. Parents routinely feed and educate their children in the ways of the family and community. Infirm elderly typically receive some support from their children. Dominance is not won but granted by the community, typically based on what they contribute to the group. Often this contribution comes in the form of wisdom, verbal co-operation that benefits the community. The transition from primate gestures and vocalizations to speech was not driven by a new brain as it was by the evolution of new strategies for cooperation.
To understand the enigma of the title, think of the way that stars burn. Stars are made of hot gas held together by gravity, and if the force of gravity were stronger than it is, stars would burn far more quickly and expire sooner. Our own Sun would have had a lifetime of only a few million years instead of the five billion it has already enjoyed, and life on our planet could never have had time to evolve. Equally, if gravity were weaker, then stars would burn too dimly, and their energy output would not support life. It seems that the strength of gravity, like Baby Bear's porridge, is "just right".
I’ve read two of Tim’s choices. James Watson’s DNA book is very good, although notoriously it underplays the role of Rosalind Franklin, who was resented as a very bright woman in a male-dominated scientific culture. (Being Jewish may also not have helped.) An essential corrective to Crick’s book is this very readable account of Franklin’s contribution [Brenda Maddox's Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA].
And there was more on the best science books story in the Guardian yesterday where James Randerson, "science correspondent", writes Levi's memoir beats Darwin to win science book title.
One book that did not make the shortlist was Oliver Sacks' A Leg to Stand On, which was nominated by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The work of the New York-based neurologist was made famous in the film Awakenings. Dr Williams said the book "challenges all sorts of assumptions about mind and body, and sketches a very exciting concept of the body itself as 'taking shape' in mind and imagination".
Over at The Book Depository, I regularly have top ten lists on the homepage there. My Ten Great Science Books list, in no particular order, is:
- Lewis Wolpert's Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast
- Elaine Morgan's The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis
- Kenan Malik's Man, Beast and Zombie
- James Gleick's Isaac Newton
- Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea
- Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
- Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel
Chris Knight's Blood Relations
- Edward Wilson's The Diversity of Life
- Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene
I'm also rather partial to Frank Ryan's Darwin's Blind Spot.
Now, I don't really get this, but reading the New Scientist last week, my eye was caught by an article on retrocausality (the full article is up on the Google alt.philosophy list):
Common sense tells us that influencing the past is impossible - what's done is done, right? Even if it were possible, think of the mind-bending paradoxes it would create. While tinkering with the past, you might change the circumstances by which your parents met, derailing the key event that led to your birth. Such are the perils of retrocausality, the idea that the present can affect the past, and the future can affect the present. Strange as it sounds, retrocausality is perfectly permissible within the known laws of nature.
Researchers are on the verge of experiments that will finally hold retrocausality's feet to the fire by attempting to send a signal to the past. What's more, they need not invoke black holes, wormholes, extra dimensions or other exotic implements of time travel. It should all be doable with the help of a state-of-the-art optics workbench and the bizarre yet familiar tricks of quantum particles. If retrocausality is confirmed - and that is a huge if - it would overturn our most cherished notions about the nature of cause and effect and how the universe works.
Kathryn Cramer mentions this on her site with regard to a Gedankenexperiment that her father, John Cramer, who is quoted in the New Scientist piece, "proposed in a talk he gave at an AAAS meeting in San Diego last June."
Then, yesterday, listening to the BBC's Start the Week, "eminent physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies" (author of The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life?) mentioned it again. (I'm always nervous when physics approaches philoshopy which is why I'm interested to read Bernard d'Espagnat soon-to-be-released On Physics and Philosophy.)
Anyone know what else I should be reading to help explain this to myself!?
Way back in 1996, the physicist Alan Sokal provoked a storm when he wrote a hoax paper for the postmodernist journal Social Text called Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. The journal published the piece, seemingly unfazed by Sokal's assertion that science should be seen in its ineluctable historicity, and arguing for a new, liberatory mathematics. He later published a book, with Jean Bricmont, called Intellectual Impostures, which took apart some of the more pseudoscientific and pretentious claims of writers including Lacan and Baudrillard.
Were any lessons learnt? Not if this interview (Dividing the species: Race, Science and Culture) in Mute magazine is anything to go by, although it is amusing and instructive to compare what Luciana Parisi has to say with what Alan Sokal wrote in his original Social Text paper.
Thankfully, RSB interviewee Marek Kohn is on hand to inject a note of sanity into the proceedings. Parisi has clearly picked up a few undigested insights from modern science, and attempted to use them as a basis for her frankly impenetrable politico-philosophical musings. Of course, we should be careful not to lapse into anti-intellectualism when faced with difficult and specialist language, but there is a difference between necessary difficulty and an author being willfully obscure to cover up the fact that what they're saying is twaddle.
The argument, as made clear by Sokal and Bricmont, is not that postmodernist philosophy has nothing important or interesting to tell us. As Sokal said (from Wikipedia):
My goal isn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we'll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself... There are hundreds of important political and economic issues surrounding science and technology. Sociology of science, at its best, has done much to clarify these issues. But sloppy sociology, like sloppy science, is useless or even counterproductive.
I agree with Kohn that the intellectual cold war between cultural and biological ways of seeing humankind should come to an end. But on the basis of this interview, it looks like a cease-fire is some way off. The two sides are not yet even talking the same language.
Language Hat brings my attention to Professor David Graeber. I knew I recognised his name, but due to a shocking dereliction of duty, I note with regret that I've not read his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Prickly Paradigm Press) despite it having been sat on the TBR-pile for a long good while. I shall remedy this very soon (and endeavour to review some of the other excellent Prickly Paradigm pamphlets too). By all accounts (see, for example, his interview with Joshua Frank in Counterpunch), David is having serious problems with his bosses at Yale.
I am currently reading Simon Singh’s Big Bang, and it’s a perfect primer on the whole field of cosmology if, like me, you know absolutely nothing about it. I know the earth is round because I’ve seen the pictures, but how did the ancient Greeks figure it out? How did they then proceed to measure how big it was? How did Einstein prove Newton wrong? How can we know anything about the origin of the universe? As well as getting the basics in cosmology, you also get a lesson in how science works, how it progresses, why people thought the way they did in the past, and how we know they were wrong. How we know what we know, and how we can test if it’s really true. All great stuff.
At the end of the book, Singh lists some websites if you want to find out more. One of the best is the Nasa website’s Cosmology 101 course. It explains clearly and simply the main ideas, and has nice colour pictures, something Simon Singh’s cover artist should have learnt from.
Better for images though is the Nasa gallery. This also has classic images of the moon landings for all you conspiracy nuts out there.
Perhaps more next week. But finally for this week, let’s just look at what you’re letting yourself in for if you start to get into all this stuff. Physicists probe the fifth dimension is a story that takes us into the 11th dimension (via 3Quarks.
Eleven dimensions? If that doesn’t make any sense to you, don’t panic. Getting to grips with relativity will be more than enough to be going on with. As Singh relates, the physicist Ludwig Silberstein once said to Arthur Eddington that he “must be one of only three persons in the world who understands general relativity”. Eddington stared back in silence, prompting Silberstein to tell him not to be so modest. “On the contrary,” replied Eddington, “I am trying to think who the third person is.”
In our more irreverent age, I expect there’s at least one person out there in the blogosphere who has copied and pasted something from Cosmology 101 into their blog, which they think destroys relativity theory. Can you find one? First entry in the comments box wins a ReadySteadyBook bookmark!
Is it, as James Lovelock claims, already too late to save humanity and the planet we rely on? We don't know, but there doesn't seem to be too solid a ground for confidence. Unfortunately, I missed David Attenborough's recent TV programme on the subject, but you can read his views here. Attenborough has remained as sceptical as possible for as long as he could, but now, he says, it is time to get "engaged".
It's probably not the kind of engagement Attenborough had in mind, but Stratfor.com's free weekly email intelligence reports said this week that Earth First! is promising to launch a radical campaign against climate change, taking direct action including the blocking of refineries and generally aiming to "make a lot of noise". Stratfor.com's analysts are sceptical that this will make much difference, but the seriousness of the problem certainly seems to demand, at the very least, noise.
Not least because New Scientist reports this week that climate change can even affect the "frequencies of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and catastrophic sea-floor landslides". Unfortunately, this article isn't available on the website ...
Perhaps what we really need to wake people up to the dangers of climate change, says Marguerite Holloway in Scientific American, is a new Silent Spring, the 1962 book by Rachel Carson widely credited with launching the environmentalist movement. If Holloway is right, we could have found it in Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert. It could, she argues, be "this era's galvanising text."
RSB recently interviewed the radical anthropologist Chris Knight. There is another interview with Chris that goes into much more detail, outlining some of the evidence his theory is based on. Most fascinatingly, what he has to say is backed up by some of the latest findings in artificial intelligence.
It's worth spending a week checking out the truly wonderful Becoming Human website, which has a series of documentaries explaining what we know about the human story, and how we came to know it.
This week's Friday science round-up:
- The excellent RealClimate blog reviews three recently published books on climate change
- GP, professor of gerontology, poet and playwright - Andrew Brown interviews polymath Raymond Tallis, who has a dig at mechanist theories of mind and the oversimplifications of evolutionary psychology
- Science writer Carl Zimmer, writes about how a knowledge of evolutionary history can inform the development of medicine