an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 16, Spring 2019, ISSN 1552-5112
God’s Casino, or Faith in Physics at the Chelsea Hotel III
“There is no universe.”
David Bowie (1947 –2016)
An ongoing conversation in Kritikos between a guest philosopher and philosopher/artist, Nick Ruiz, Ph.D. The spring 2019 issue hosts Jason Josephson-Storm for the proverbial fireside chat, picking up where the last conversation left off regarding astrobiology, quantum entanglement, spirituality and faith in physics, art and philosophy. (Part III)
JJS: Thanks for inviting me to weigh in on this fascinating conversation!
In a later response, I want to return to your broader issue of “comparative human thought” and the relationship between science, art, and religion. I imagine that is why you brought me on board. But I want to begin by discussing the issue of the limits of scientific knowledge and its relationship to contemporary physics/determinism.
It seems to me that since the first dialogue, a key question has been the limits of science. From my perspective, there seem to be two aspects to this debate: first the broader issue of empiricism, and second the relationship between our current scientific ontology and the limits of knowledge.
1—In terms of empiricism. I don’t want to assume your readers have much of a background in philosophy (those that do should bear with me). But in a way it seems that the question about science is retreading some standard philosophical terrain about the challenge of empirical knowledge.
David Hume, for instance, famously argued that the senses in themselves can never prove that sensory appearances reliably depict external reality, because to prove this would require access to something beyond appearances. (To simplify, Kant had this issue in mind, when he articulated his famous division between the phenomena and the noumena, or the appearance and thing-in-itself).
In his critique of inductive reasoning, Hume also argued that we necessarily take evidence of the senses to justify theories about things we haven’t observed and that this is equally problematic. When teaching this to students, I often tell a joke about a man who jumps from a 101-story building and after falling 100 floors he generalizes that 100% of the fall thus far has been fine and without injury and therefore concludes that he will land just fine. You could make basically the same joke about the 100-year-old woman who concludes she is immortal based on the same kind of reasoning. Scientific theories are generally formulated as inductive generalizations in exactly this kind of way and are vulnerable to their own potential failure.
This is a deeper issue with the nature of empirical knowledge. But my sense is that all it means is that we have to admit a) that knowledge based on our senses is necessarily limited; and b) that therefore all empirical knowledge is necessarily fallible.
It is also worth adding here that I find Larry Laudan’s argument for a pessimistic meta-induction to be fairly convincing. He argues that given a sufficient timeframe all previous scientific theories have been overturned, so we should not feel too confident about the status of our current scientific theories. Most of what contemporary scientists now thinks is true, later scientists will probably regard as false, or perhaps, at best only approximately true.
For this reason, I liked your reference to Einstein as perhaps the Newton of the 21st century. From my perspective what we do as scholars, scientists, and philosophers is produce provisional knowledge that is useful to our current moment/intellectual context, but it would be a mistake to cling to notions of absolute or eternal truths.
This doesn’t mean that “science is just a faith,” but it does mean that all scientific findings are merely provisional and we need to take any scientific claim with a greater degree of humility than most folks I talk to are used to. I don’t think science requires I assume that the universe is intelligible as your previous interlocutor suggested. All that science requires is a kind of local and provisional intelligibility or instrumental efficacy at the human scale.
We could add as a corollary contra-Dawkins and his naïve atheism that the theological conception of God is precisely not the kind of thing we would have scientific access to. God is not a hypothesis that can be falsified empirically because God would be beyond space, time, and causation.
But this shouldn’t give theologians too much comfort because like the noumena about which nothing can be said, the same argument could be used to argue that the only possible approach to the divine would be a “via negativa” that can only be approached by negating things or remarking on what cannot be said. So while this may be controversial with your readers, I don’t think we can regard positively-formulated “religious truths” as any more eternal than scientific ones. (But I tend not to see “faith” as a universal aspect of “religion,” although perhaps we can talk about that later).
2—The second issue is the relationship between contemporary scientific ontology, determinism, and the limits of knowledge. I want to argue here that our current physics suggests either a) objective probability and therefore no determinism, or b) ontological determinism but nevertheless subjective probability.
I’ve only recently begun thinking significantly about the ontology of quantum physics and its philosophical implications. So the following is a bit provisional.
That said, what has stood out in my reading thus far is that quantum entanglement is deeply weird and what most popular commentators miss is that its implications scale. Basically, by all rights quantum entanglement should extend all the way up from the basic particles to the things measuring them, in other words, to macro objects. So quantum indeterminacy should be seen as something that affects the whole of the cosmos.
But there are two main influential strands in understanding quantum indeterminacy. One camp sees quantum indeterminacy as demonstrating that objective probability is central to the universe. Basically, the universe itself is random. But this isn’t the only or necessarily the main way to read quantum phenomena.
Influential alternatives suggest that quantum indeterminacy does not mean objective probability but actually describes limitations in the way we measure the phenomena (e.g. David Bohm’s ontological theory and others), or a newer group of philosophers who describe themselves as Wave Function Realists seem to embrace the notion that superposition is ontological and that quantum physics is evidence for emerging multiple worlds. Quantum determinists differ in their explanation of indeterminacy but generally agree that quantum events are not random. The important thing for us is that the world is both determined in principle and, from the standpoint of a given observer, behaves probabilistically (with subjective probability).
But you don’t need quantum physics to get a deterministic but also unpredictable world.
Even based on the laws of thermodynamics, if there is anything like chaos or extreme sensitivity to minute differences in initial conditions, the cosmos could both be fully deterministic (lacking objective probability) and also necessarily fundamentally unpredictable (thus exhibiting subjective probability). Think of Edward Lorenz’s famous example of the butterfly’s wing beats launching a causal cascade that would alter the course of a tornado. There is a lot of evidence that deterministic nonlinear systems are so sensitive that they are almost necessarily unpredictable unless you know the starting state to a very fine degree.
Moreover, if space and time are continuous (rather than discrete), then the location of a given particle would occur on a scale that was irreducible to rational numbers and this would mean that for all intents and purposes the world would still be unpredictable even if the universe was fundamentally deterministic.
To take this all together, 1) scientific knowledge is necessarily limited and provisional, but I don’t think that should get us down too much; and 2) if we take it at its word, the contemporary ontology of physics either gives us a universe which at its core is random or it gives us a world which is deterministic but which nevertheless necessarily appears probabilistic to any being with merely finite knowledge.
NRIII: Welcome! Thanks so much for participating in the discussion! I think the spirit of God’s Casino, or Faith in Physics at the Chelsea Hotel (an ongoing literary discussion of philosophers, artists, scientists, etc. regarding a variety of philosophical themes engaged here on Kritikos), which is emerging at this point, is that of an unsolved mystery, fixed in time within a hurricanic cone of uncertainty. Cultural practices, academic and otherwise (e.g. philosophy, art, mathematics, science, religion, politics, agriculture, economics, etc.) portend to do many things, perhaps all things for their respective and most staunchly orthodox adherents, but the problem is that they don’t in all actuality do many things very well. Worse, such practices may not even do the one or two specific things they are most intent on doing all that well either.
Our era is truly epochal in that sense. We, the toolmakers, unlike our primitive, ancient and modern forebears, appear to have run out of ideas that have great Enlightenment-style significance (e.g. the wheel, agriculture, the printing press, genetics, space travel, internet, etc.), all while our species’ future does not seem very secure as human populations swell. Have we lost our way in terms of a meaningfully collective narrative to share, and more importantly, to help us understand our ideas and inventions, useful and otherwise? Is such a narrative even necessary? Every culture seems to have at least one predominant tale, that is, an explanation of ‘things’, as it were. Some point to the new social media and the like, but social media is probably the weakest attempt we’ve seen at social cohesion in the last century. It simulates social cohesion, but it offers more separation and alienation in the form of technosocial popularity envy and an odd preoccupation with ethereal attributes (e.g. ‘likes’, ‘shares’, etc.). It’s all empty calories.
For example, take cellphones. Arguably, a ‘significant’ invention that ‘defines’ our era in some purportedly meaningful way. But who really needs a cell phone? What does it mean to have one? Is it just a simple and innocuous tool of communication? Or, has it truly changed everything and everyone? Or, has nothing changed? With the narrative of advertising, we receive only one widely circulating collective narrative with respect to humanity and cell phones, that of solicitation. In that story, cell phones are awesome! Humans should each own at least three of them, always the newest, and enjoy every app we can before it’s too late!
Interdisciplinarity as an academic discipline (e.g. critical theory, cultural studies, etc.) sought to remedy such a human cognitive void, with regard to the analysis of such kinds of embedded social narratives or cultural engineering, though it seems largely ineffectual as a widespread adaptation to life today. How come? I would say that most people do not really think that way, nor care to do so. Interdisciplinarity appears far too complex and requires too much effort. It’s easier to remain stuck in a one-track mindset. Everything is philosophy. Everything is biology, etc. That sort of stubbornness. Obviously, disciplinary essentialism is mythological, but try convincing Richard Dawkins otherwise. I adore The Selfish Gene (1976), but surely there are other ghosts in the machine, no?
The wonders of quantum entanglement and dark matter I imagine will continue to escape much of humanity for some time. The scientists don’t really care too much about exploratory questions of ontology, because there’s no funding in it. And in no time, we’ve been reduced to a world culture of phallic empiricism and world seduction in the form of financial summits, cultural militarism and advertising. It’s not that globalization doesn’t have its benefits. Or STEM (i.e. science, technology, engineering and math). Of course, they do. Perhaps, it’s that something is missing. Something other than the all too common and specifically hominid race to the basest common denominators of late capitalism and STEM as faith (albeit a quite reliable faith, depending upon the objective, point taken). Too bad magic is not as effective, no?! Or, maybe it is! Please share some insight with regard to your experience in Japan and the invention of religion in that space, or perhaps your exploration of the myths of disenchantment may have some bearing here?
JJS: In general, I share your broad sense of the weakness of the contemporary academy under Neo-Liberalism. The central mission of many educational institutions seems to be preparing students for a job market that no longer exists. Plus, while academic administration inflates, adjunctification has transformed most of higher education into a precariat class with insufficient stability for real intellectual innovation or cultural critique.
As I’m sure you know, this is part of a broader assault on education in America. This attack is often presented as new, but as Richard Hofstadter observed in (1963) it has deep roots in a persistent disdain for expertise and suspicion of academic knowledge. The difference is that education has become increasingly politically polarized, so while conservatives used to support various forms of learning - they don’t anymore. Meanwhile, much of the Left abandoned any form of education that wasn’t yoked to militarism or the market (hence the conceptual poverty of the embrace of STEM). Sadly, the humanities seem almost vestigial.
All this conspires to make the academy increasingly irrelevant to intellectual and cultural life. Practically the only public intellectuals remaining in America are pro-capitalist economists and a small number of natural scientists with little background in or capacity for philosophy or broader issues.
The pull toward hyper-specialization has made that worse insofar as scholars are under strong pressure to publish works targeted toward a narrower and narrower audience of other specialists. In theory circles, we got sucked into fetishizing jargon and obscurantism. Mainstream disciplines exhibit strong pushes toward territorialism and arbitrary disciplinary gate keeping. There is a tendency to attack other scholars who get too popular or write too accessibly. Across the board, scholars seemingly equate rigor with being unreadable. I try to push back against this trend in my work, but in many ways, scientists/scholars are writing themselves into irrelevance.
I think capitalism can be very corrosive and I think you are completely right about the myths that get circulated in advertising.
The striking thing from my vantage is that advertising actively recycles the tropes of enchantment. Commercials regularly depict speaking animals, objects with magical powers, mythological beasts, and the like. They even recount narratives of redemption. But all of this is of course yoked to amplifying consumption and encouraging further desire.
But all that said, I’d like to push back against the sense that scientific empiricism is hollow or actively renders the world meaningless.
We tend to get this narrative from the German sociologist Max Weber (who I discuss in The Myth of Disenchantment). Weber was pessimistic about the capacity of natural science to produce ethical meaning. In particular, he saw “rational, empirical knowledge” and “empirical scientific rationalism” as transforming the cosmos “into a causal mechanism” and as a resulting displacing religion and ethics into “the irrational realm.” Basically, Weber assumed that science could not provide ethics and hence he saw scientific rationalization as stripping away older layers of religious meaning and value from the world.
But Weber was wrong in this regard.
On the philosophical level, Weber’s argument ultimately rested on the Humean (or Kantian) idea that to extrapolate ethics from existence is a naturalistic fallacy. But since Weber’s day a number of philosophers have shown that there are various legitimate ways of going from an “is” to an “ought.” If you are interested I can say a lot more about this.
On a sociological or anthropological level, I’ve demonstrated in works like The Invention of Religion in Japan and The Myth of Disenchantment, that the advancement of science and technology are NOT correlated with a loss of belief in a meaningful world. The classic version of the secularization thesis is false. Moreover, there are plenty of different ways to combine science and enchantment. There are reasons to think that science might actually terminate in panpsychism.
Moreover, people have ways to formulate meaningful communities without reference to older institutional religions (e.g. Trekkies). This kind of things gets written off quickly but I’m actually optimistic about various new forms of community formation.
There tend to be less grand forms of meaning that unite societies as a whole. But I’m actually optimistic about meaning pluralism. Old fashioned secularization theorists tended to attack pluralism in some kind of nostalgia for a centralized church, but I actually think pluralizing ontologies are valuable and basically a good thing, even if they terminate in societies that have to be more agonistic (or at least engage in more debate) in order to find common ground.
NRIII: Is that an evolutionary ethics I see on your plate? (laughter) - I’d love to hear more about what sounds to me like evolutionary ethics, which is obviously a somewhat novel, naturalistic evolutionary turn in ethical philosophy from our some of our modern forebears. Its implications could be far-reaching. Contemporary analytic metaphysics might not withstand a metaphysics of evolution. Darwinians have long held that there can be little understanding of the human condition, while remaining ignorant of the fleshy genetic code, even if it is culturally modulated. Might the evidence for such a reality be in their favor?
Eastern philosophy holds a similarly naturalistic account in high regard as well, with texts like the Tao, perhaps culminating in a sort of naturalist panpsychism. And it’s interesting in light of a purportedly wu wei world, to see which ideas regarding governance co-evolve with it, no?
I’m not sure that science per se gets us there (to panpsychism) as a cultural practice, but I’d love to hear more about that as well.
Do any of the aforementioned ideas have worthwhile effects upon humanity’s future? What can we speculate the future will hold for us? Totalitarian open markets? Totalitarian open citizens? Totalitarian analytic philosophy Shrinking administrative support for the humanities? And perhaps, hence declining enrollment in the humanities? Government-issued birth permits and social media pluralism? Engaged #trekkies and #kpop fandom for the brave new world?
Regarding physics, should humanity continue to wonder if we are more than physical matter? And, if we contain or interact with something more than identified physical matter (e.g. dark matter), wouldn’t that scale up or down somehow? How might our social organizations actually reflect that reality?
Humanity appears to revolve around a metaphysics of capital, and little else, even when under the guise of something else (e.g. religion). Should we instead have faith in capital? Faith in physics? Faith in utility, rather than otherworldliness? Perhaps it’s not so binary, and we may reasonably engage in a bit of both? John Stuart Mill and Jean Baudrillard? Leonard Cohen and The Cars? Emile Cioran and Jesus Christ? Have our cake and eat it, too?!
JJS: Wow. Great questions! I feel like we could keep discussing these things forever. Sorry that our conversation will have to draw to close soon. To reply, the ethical project I’m working on is less Darwin than Aristotle. It emerges from reading two different bodies of theory together—namely Critical Theory and Virtue Ethics. I’ve been calling the project “Critical Virtue Ethics” and its goal “Revolutionary Happiness.”
I argue that we should embrace human flourishing as an ultimate telos or goal. I write “Happiness” with a capital “H” to note that I am not talking about a particular transitory emotion, but a state of becoming that is multi-realizable and has a series of features I go on to specify (a kind of scientifically updated and pluralized Eudaimonia). Drawing on thinkers like Shantideva, I argue that compassion is the main virtue. I also argue that if I can convince someone to embrace a goal of this sort than it permits formulating both logical and objectively normative entailments.
“Revolutionary Happiness” is also a political demand rooted in societal critique. This is where I am bringing in the Critical Theory. Here is also where it breaks from the happiness studies that was rightly criticized by thinkers like Sara Ahmed for being pacifying. Revolutionary Happiness is instead a call to action or a philosophy of praxis.
But its positive project departs from much of conventional continental or critical political theory. Because while critical theory (and its sister disciplines) have gotten really good at criticizing ideology or formulating various hermeneutics of suspicion, they have largely tended to omit positive projects in favor of relentlessly and endlessly rehashing critique.
Critical Virtue Ethics therefore brings together both the societal critique of thinkers such as Hannah Arendt and the Frankfurt School, while adding in a utopian or positive project drawn from East Asian and Greco-Roman philosophers as well as Sci-fi (for that see below).
But the challenge—and this is where I am picking up your last
paragraph—is how to avoid having the whole thing hijacked by capitalism and
transformed into a cheap commodity. As I think you rightly observe capitalism
has the capacity to absorb contradictions, even rebellion (e.g., you can order
anti-capitalist “Got Marxism?” t-shirts from Walmart). So while I depart from
the stated goal of most Marxist politics, I think we still have to figure out
how to break “faith in capitalism” or at least remind people that there are
alternatives. Let me explain.
The contemporary political moment is downright dystopian. I often feel like we are living in under a Biff Tannen presidency. But we’ve also seen that postmodern cynicism and pessimism has generally failed to motivate positive political action. Moreover, the centrist political technocracy that has dominated the Left for a generation has found itself incapable of responding to increasing economic inequality, the prison-industrial complex, and the collapse of labor resulting from the weakening of the nation state and the transition to late stage, virtual, capitalism.
For all these reasons, I think we need visions of utopia now even more than ever…This is where things like Star Trek come in for me. Although it is not my favorite franchise (I prefer Iain M. Banks’ The Culture), I think Science Fiction is one of the last places to preserve some sparks of emancipatory or utopian energy. So that—in addition to being a geek—is why I turn to Science Fiction for inspirations for the philosophical and political theory I’m working on.
I’ve probably gone on too long, but to answer one last question. You asked “should humanity continue to wonder if we are more than physical matter”?
I’d say few things have changed as radically as the notion of “matter.” I came across a quote by John Dewey the other day that put this well. In a 1944 essay he said, “It would be difficult to find a greater distance between any two terms than that which separates ‘matter’ in the Greek-medieval tradition and the technical signification […] that the word bears in science today.” I agree insofar as the combined impact of relativity and quantum physics has radically transformed our notion of “matter.”
But I’d add that I don’t think the process is over. To circle back to something I said at the start of this conversation, I think Laudan was right that given enough time scientific theories generally turn out to be false or at best only approximately true. Even now research in quantum physics is demolishing most of our standing notions of matter and something else will come along to challenge those in turn.
Also, consciousness remains one of the great unsolved problems. Indeed, contemporary research on the subject is very very much in its infancy. Philosophers and scientists totally disagree about what consciousness might be and how to study it. The mind-matter dualism associated with Descartes is widely repudiated, but my sense is that most purely physicalist accounts of consciousness have either been not very convincing or have tried to explain consciousness away as epiphenomenal (which I find basically unpersuasive). Meanwhile, quantum anomalies continue to suggest that observation and cosmos have a messier relationship than we have fully grasped thus far.
These suggest to me a bigger role for consciousness than many natural scientists have been willing to account for in the past. Recently, however, a number of scientists and philosophers seem to be turning toward different versions of panpsychism—that every bit of matter contains some kind proto-consciousness. If they are right, then current notions of purely physical matter will have to go.
All that is to say, I think natural science is only in its infancy. Plus, some significant percentage of what we think we know now will likely be overturned. I think science is the best thing we’ve got to answer certain questions, but it is inherently limited—by its philosophical presuppositions, the fundamental limitations of the human mind, and the conditions of empirical research as such.
NRIII: Yes, I agree that nothing is truer than the idea that intellectual currencies do not persist; like language, what is en vogue today is not tomorrow, and often seems silly in retrospect. Ain’t it ‘swell’. (laughter)
Nine Inch Nails wrote a song called ‘Happiness in Slavery’, from the EP ‘Broken’ released in 1992. Click the image below to see the band perform the song, 20+ years later on their recent North American tour. A fitting exit while we await more on Revolutionary Happiness and the future to come?
TO BE CONTINUED…
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 16, Spring 2019, ISSN 1552-5112