Saturday, 21 December 2013

"Mathematisation of Nature" - to be combatted

As readers of some of my posts will know, I have taken an interest in writers drawing attention to the "instrumental" mode of existence introduced through modern science and technology, pushing out human significances, with a resulting cultural distress. Husserl wrote "Crisis of the European Sciences", Adorno & Horkheimer produced "Dialectic of Enlightenment", later Heidegger wrote of the "Gestell", the "enframing", that is technology, Wittgenstein wrote of "our soapy dishwater science". I think some common ground exists between these and other writers in regarding the cultural distress as partly manifested by the lack of a sense of distress: a certain complacency. (See, for example, discussion of the convergence of Adorno's and Heidegger's thinking - "[they] can agree that the situation, viewed as a whole, is catastrophic. Yet this catastrophe lacks an alarming aspect" - in chapter 24 of Rudiger Safranski's "Martin Heidegger, Between Good And Evil", 1998) It seems to me that something of the meaning of this lack of a sense of distress is brilliantly exposed by F R Leavis in his 1962 Richmond Lecture, a criticism of C P Snow's "The Two Cultures and The Scientific Revolution". Leavis supports what seems to be Snow's main contention, that's there needs to be more and better education in science, and everything else, but especially science. But, as others have said before, Leavis's main concern in the Richmond Lecture is to demonstrate what is lacking in the cultural conditions which could elevate a man like C P Snow to the status he enjoyed as a critical thinker, viewed as one able to speak with authority on science and literature. As Leavis shows in his analysis of Snow's lecture, Snow himself seems to have no compunction about delivering his generalisations about "two cultures"; he really does feel qualified to adopt that tone. But as Leavis's analysis of the performance of his lecture also shows, Snow does not know what he's talking about, and "doesn't know he doesn't know". The 1962 Richmond Lecture has been called the finest polemic of the 20th century in English. It is a great work in my view. To judge by his essay "The Eunuch at the Orgy: Reflections on the Significance of F.R. Leavis" (2009) Raymond Tallis disagrees. Tallis sees The Richmond Lecture as a defensive gesture born of a feeling of inferiority and threat he sees as being borne by non-scientists towards science learning: "for it cannot be pleasant for the innumerate to discover the centrality of the mathematisation of nature to our culture" Precisely. If it does not feel unpleasant, then there is something amiss.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Yentob - aaaaaargh!

I would like to echo the sentiment of a piece by Patrick Wright of some years back, relating to the BBC 'Imagine' series. Take this man off the telly! I dared take a peek at tonight's broadcast (having happily missed a series or four) and there was AY once again, camera trained on him, experiencing it for you. Aaaaaaargh! No matter what it is, AY is on the inside track, he'd like you to know.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

"How To Believe" - Guardian, Liz Williams

This series in the Guardian is good to see. Huge need for thinking. Liz Williams put in 5 short pieces on Karl Popper "The Enemy of Certainty". I've now got a big crush on Ms Williams, witch and SF writer. (Hey Liz! Please get in touch!) I was so pleased to see her emphasising that Popper's attempt at demarcation between science and pseudo-science (simultaneously denying the logical positivist doctrine of verification) was not casting the pseudo-science out. His work allows for rigour and meaningfulness in "pseudo-scientific" theory. Indeed he leaves us realising that metaphysical underpinnings are there in science no less than in other theory. He preserves the metaphysical and smashes positivism! Yay!

Monday, 7 October 2013

Transcript, Slavoj Zizek: "Materialism & Theology" - address to European Graduate School, 2007

What follows is my transcript of a talk given by Slavoj Zizek to the European Graduate School in 2007 on the subject of Materialism and Theology.

It is available to view and listen on youtube.

I'm posting it first, but have had many thoughts in response, some given here.

I came across the talk about the same time I read the Terry Lectures given by Terry Eagleton in 2008 and published in 2009: "Faith, Reason and Revolution". I felt that there was a subtle but substantial lack of something (a kind of awareness) in the scientific-rationalist writing against religion that had emerged - coincidentally? - as the 150th anniversary of the "Origin of Species" approached.

I'd like to recapture everything that propelled me down this reading path. (I kept notebooks and will piece it together). I was questioning home, identity, technology, buying and renovating, in the early 2000s, a dilapidated ex-council house in a crowded south London suburb, responses to the crush of cars and street and people, menace and smeared pavements. (The world has retained a threatening aspect, though I have ways of interpreting this feeling now which I didn't have back then). In amongst this, was a moment of realisation that science is a cultural outgrowth, as much to do with the way I related to myself as it was a way of describing the world "out there". I was on the way to discovering the depths to which a kind of Benthamism worked in me, but hadn't the learning to identify it. I grew up aiming to emulate my civil engineer father, and started work at a time when that world was becoming pre-occupied with the environment, with "green-ness", with looking at the world and finding it too "un-natural". I was engaging with this engineered world - full of waste and the dismal results of utopian urban projects - with the practical stance of an engineer and unconsciously becoming a constructivist, bringing the objective problem-solving round in on itself, locating myself within it, becoming subjective.

Anyway, Zizek's talk is interesting and entertaining. Also in my reading at the time were works by Andrew Bowie (who writes on German philosophy since Kant), Isaiah Berlin, Andrew Feenberg, John Gray and others.

The talk lasts an hour. Reading it takes a little less. It's almost verbatim. There is no paraphrasing, but maybe some small editing, e.g. where Zizek corrected himself, or making good the occasionally odd English phrasing.

"WHILE there has been a rise of religious fundamentalism, there has also been a rise of very reductive vulgar materialism, dawkins, dennet, hitchens, sam harris. I think that these are two sides of the same coin, we don't have to choose. In September 2006, Pope Ratzinger caused a stir when he quoted the infamous lines of a 14th century Byzantine emperor..."Show me what was new in Muhammad, and I will show you evil..the faith he preached". What was Ratzinger's idea? He tried to delineate a fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam, that Christianity is fundamentally linked to reason (...'First there was the word, logos.') and [for]Islam, that God is absolute, transcendental, other. Islam, according to the Pope, is that God is not bound up with us through reason, so the irrationality of violence might thereby appear to be justified [to those who believe] it is God's will. So the Pope asks "Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature always and intrinsically true?" There is a problem with this statement. In it the Pope also condemned the western godless secularism. Pope says that the gift of reason has resulted [and] warped into an absolutist doctrine, so the Pope concludes that reason and faith must come together in a new way, in the divine logos, the breath of reason. Where is the problem? They explode when one analyses what the Pope means by "reason". Just a week before this Pope's statement he made some remarks on the irrationaltiy of Darwinism. There was an american jesuit priest who contradicted the Pope's endorsement of intelligent design theory (Father George Coyne, director of the Vatican observatory) "the Adam and Eve" theory of evolution. Father Coyne was outspoken defender of Darwin's theory and said it was compatible with Christianity. But the Pope said (in his book "Truth and Tolerance"): "The question is whether reality originated on the basis of chance and necessity and thus from what is irrational..." you got the point - necessity is for the Pope irrational... "...that is whether reason, being a chance by-product of irrationality and floating in an ocean of irrationality, is ultimately just as meaningless. Or whether the principle that represents the fundamental conviction of christian faith and of its philosphy remains true: in principio erat verbo ... in the beginning of all things stands creative power of reason. Now, as then, christian faith represents the choice in favour of the priority of reason and of rationality".

So this then is the first qualification that one must have. The Reason of which the pope speaks, is the Reason for which Darwin's theory of evolution ... and let's be clear here, ultimately modern science itself, for which the assertion of the contingency of the universe, the break with the Aristotelian teleology, is a constitutive axiom. So... for which Darwin ['s theory of evolution] and Modern Science are irrational. The Reason of which the Pope speaks is the pre-modern, teleological reason, the view of the universe as a harmonious whole in which everything serves some higher purpose. Which is why, incidentally - this is a nice pardox here - the Pope's remarks obfuscate the key role of the christian theology in the birth of modern science. I think this is true, that Christian theology played a crucial part [in the origin of modern science]. But which theology? What paved the way for modern science was precisely the voluntarist idea, elborated by, among others, Duns Scotus and Rene Descartes, that God is not bound by any eternal rational truths, that is to say: while the illusory perception of modern science is that it is a discourse of pure description - of facts - the paradox resides - i.e. the paradox of modern science - in the coincidence of bare facticity and radical voluntarism. Facts can be sustained as meaningless, as something that just Is the way it is only if it is secretly sustained by an arbitrary divine will. This is why Descartes is one of the founding figures of modern science, precisey when he made even the most elementary mathematical facts (like two and two is four) dependent on the arbitrary divine will. Even in mathematics, this unconditional voluntarism is discernible in it's axiomatic character."

(Editor's note: A very similar point is penetratingly and subtly made in Martin Heidegger's essay "Mathematics, Modern Science, and Metaphysics".)

"... One begins by arbitrarily positing a series of axioms out of which everything else is supposed to follow, so again, that's the first paradox - when the Pope speaks about rationality he means the pre-modern harmonious teleological vision of the universe not at all what we mean by the rationality of the modern sciences.

The second qualification - Is Islam really so irrational? Does it really celebrate a totally transcendent God above Reason? In an issue of Time magazine, a year ago, there was an interesting interview with Majmoud Ahmadinejad, who advocated exactly the same unity of reason, logic and spirituality as does the Pope, i.e. to the question what he would ask of George Bush, MA relied, "I would ask him 'Are Rationalism Spirituality and Humanitarianism and Logic are the bad things for human beings? Why more conflict? Why houdl we go for hostilities, why build weapons of mass destrution, everybody can love one another, I have said that we can run the world through logic, problems cannot be solved through bombs, what we need today is logic?" This is the despised muslim fundamentalist. I claim he was right. From the perspective of Islam, Christianity, the religion of love, which is not rational enough. Its focus on love makes God all too human, biased, in the figure of christ who intervenes into creation as an engaged, combative figure, allowing his Christ's passion to overrun the logic of the creator and master of the universe. The muslim god, on the contrary, is the true god of reason. He's wholly transcendent, not in the sense of frivolous irrationalitya s the pope thinks, but in the sense of the supreme creator who knows and directs everything and has thus no need to get involved in earthly accidents with partial [biased] passion .... You know, the god already is total rational master of the universe, no need to intervene with some stupid self-sacrifices or whatever .... No wonder then that - that's an interesting fact - that Islam finds it much easier to accept the, for our commonsense, paradoxical results of modern quantum physics, which run against our common sense. The notion of an all-enompassing, rational order which runs against our common sense (that's the idea of quantum physics). The underlying logic of Islam is that of a rationality which can be wierd, but which allows no exceptions. The universe is totally rational. While the underlying logic of Christianity is of an irrational exception, unfathomable divine mystery which sustains our rationality, or (as GK Chesterton put it) "The christian doctrine not only discovered the law, but it foresaw the exceptions. It is only the exceptions which allow us to perceive the miracle of the unversal rule" and for Chesterton, the same goes for our rational understanding of the universe. A quote from Chesterton's "Orthodoxy": "The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious and everything else becomes lucid. The one created thing we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility."

Chesterton's aim is thus to save reason, through sticking to it's founding exception. Deprived of reason, deprived of this exception, reason degenerates into a blind, self-destructive scepticism, in short into total irrationalism, or, as Chetsterton liked to repeat, "If you do not believe in God, you will soon be ready to believe in anything, including the most superstitious nonsense about miracles", which is why incidentally - and Chestreton was here consequent [relevant?] - you probably now that even today he is best known as the author of detective stories - Father Brown. What's the point of detective stories, as Chesterton put it? You have something that appears enigmatic, mysterious, like - I don't know, a locked room mystery - and precisely the whole point of detective stories is to avoid a ... if you know the solution at the end was, like a divine intervention, you are cheating. The explanation must be totally rational. And that's the nice thing about Chesterton His claim is that Christianity is the only way to save reason, through the exception. This was GKC's basic insight: that the irrationalism of the late 19th century (Nietsche, Lebensphilosophie and so on) was the necessary consequence of the enlightenment rationalist attack on religion. Another problematic, nice quote: "The ... and the crusades, the heresies and the horrible persecutions of the pre-modern medi-aeval universe were not organised, as is ignorantly said, for the suppression of reason, they (witch hunts etc.) were organised for the difficult defence of reason. Men, by a blind instinct, knew that once things were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first. The authority of priests to absolve, the authority of popes to define the authority, even of inquisitors to terrify, these were all only dark defences erected around one central authority more undemonstrable more supernatural than all: the authority of a man to think freely." I love this: in so far as religion is gone, reason is going. It's a consequent position, the position again of universal rule and excpeption. Now here however, I think we encounter GKC's limitation. But a limitation that he himself overcomes, when (I think this is his best text), in his text on the book of Job, he shows why God had to rebuke his own defenders. (The men that try to appease Job for his misfortune with reasons about God's having it in store for him or whatever - there is a deeper reason why you got screwed up. They want to read a meaning into it - God is Just, whatever. "The mechanical and supercilious comforters of Job" as GKC put it). Job's point is not that "No, I didn't.." not that "No! I'm innocent God is wrong and unjust", but that there is no deeper meaning. And what the three of four theologists friends of Job insist on is precisely: No - Your catastrophe HAS a deeper meaning. The nice thing is (and this is why I think the Book of Job is the founding text of Materialism maybe) is that God himself, without any ambiguity, takes the side of Job: He says everything that Job said is right, everything that the three comforters said is wrong. Quote from GKC:

"The mechanical optimist endeavours to justify the universe avowedly upon the ground that it is rational and consecutive pattern. He points out that the fine thing about the world is that it can all be explained. That is the one point, if I may so put it so, at which God, in his return to Job, is explicit to the point of violence. God says, in effect, that if there is one fine thing about the world, then it is that it cannot be explained. He insists on the inexplicableness of everything. He goes even further and insists on the positive and palpable unreason of things. A quote from the book of Job: "Hast thou sent the rain upon the desert where no man is and on the winderness where there is no man", and so on. To startle man, God, for an instant, becomes a blasphemer. One might even say that God comes for an instant to be an atheist. He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things: the horse, the raven, the white Ess [?] the peacock, the ostrich, the crocodile, he so describes each of them that it sounds like a monster walking in the sun. The whole is a sort of psalm or rhapsody on the sense of wonder. The maker of all things is astonished at the things he has himself made."

So you got it: God is here no longer the miraculaous exception which guarantees the normality of the universe, the unexplainable X who enables us to explain everything else. He is, on the contrary, Himself overwhelmed by the miracle of his own creation. Upon a closer look there is nothing normal in our universe. Everything, even every small thing, is a miraculous exception. Viewed from a proper perspective, every normal thing is a monstrosity. [For example] why should we take the horse as normal and the unicorn as a miraculous exception? Even the horse, the most normal thing in the world is a flattering (?) miracle. And I think this blasphemous God is the God of modern science, since modern science is sustained by exactly this attitude of wondering at the most obvious. In short modern science is on the side of believing in anything. It is one of the lessons of the theory of relativity or of quantum physics, not that modern science undermines our most elementary natural attitude and compels us to believe the most non-sensical things.

To clarify this confusion, I think that Jacques Lacan's logic of the so-called "Non-All", can be of some help here. (Lacan distinguishes the so-called masculine side: universality, "All", Universal Law, grounded in exception, and "Non-All" - there is no exception but because of this, no universality.) GKC obviously relies on masculine side of universality and its constitutive exception. Everything obeys causality with the exception of God, the central mystery. The logic of modern science is, on the contrary, feminine. First, it is materialist, accepting the axiom that nothing escapes natural causality, there is nothing which cannot be accounted for by rational explanation. However, the other side of this materialist axiom is that not all is rational - not in the sense that there is something that is irrational, something that escapes natural causality, but in the sense that it is the totality of rational causal order which is in itself inconsistent (in this formal sense of course - irrational "Non-All"). Only this Non-All guarantees the proper opening of the scientific discourse to surprises, to the emergence of the unthinkable. Who in the nineteenth century would have imagined anything like relativity theory or quantum physics. So perhaps the imcompatibility between Derrida (I quote now to give you an example of this difference) and Deleuze I think can also be accounted [for] in these terms. Whate makes Derrida masculine, in the sense of the logic of universality and its exception, is the persistence in his work of totalisation through exception. the search for a post-metaphysical way of thinking, the break-out of the metaphysical closure, presupposes the violent gesture of universalisation of levelling, equalization, unifiction of all the field of intra-metaphysical struggles (... you know the story of all the attempts to break out of metaphysics, from Kierkegaard to Marx, from Nietsche to Heidegger, from Levinas to Claude Levi-Strauss) ultimately remain in the horizon of the metaphysics of presence. The same gesture is clearly discernible also in Heidegger, for whom all reversals of metaphysics from Marx to Nietsche, from Husserl to Sartre, remain within the horizon of the forgetting of being, ultimately caught in the technological nihilism as the accomplishment of metaphysics, as wells as (incidentally) for Adorno and Horkheimer, for whom the entire Western thought is totalised as the gradual deployment of the dialectics of enlightenment which culminates in today's administered world. As some people used to say, "From Plato to Nato is a straight line".

It is also this aspect that I find problematic in our good friend Giorgio Agamben (I can say something critical about him, because he's not here). Seriously: doesn't he do the same thing... like... what narrative is he telling us? From the very beginning of the West, western philosophy, there is a kind of straight line eschatology that terminates in today's Homo Sacer, concentration camp logic, that's the true form of the entire development and all attempts to break out get caught into it, so we just have to wait for the reversal. I'm tempted to claim that perhaps it is this very gesture of violent equalisation of the entire field against which you then formulate your own position of exception, which is the most elementary gesture of metaphysics - this is for me what maybe we should... drop: the idea that everything is part of metaphysics of presence, the forgetfulness of being, except the position from which you are totalising. In clear contrast to Derrida, this gesture of violent equalisation is, as far as I can see, totally absent in Gilles Deleuze's work. Deleuze's gaze upon the tradition of philosophy is somehow like the gaze of God on creation in God's reply to Job. There is no norm whoch would allow us to levelise [sic] the field. Miracles are everywhere, every phenomenon, perceived properly, from a position which it from its standard context, is an exception. (This is what I like, again, in Deleuze. He is far from the idea of all hitherto is... NO! He says Let's look at even Plato, who appears to be his enemy, even Kant, Spinoza, everywhere you see an exception, everywhere you see a miracle). Catholic church, on the contrary, was, as a rule, always on the side of the common sense realism and universal, natural explanation. From GKC to Pope Jean-Paul II, who endorsed both evolutionism (sic) with the exception of the moment when God imparts the exception of the immortal soul (it's always the same logic) or even contemporary cosmology. Jean-Paul II says "It's fine, wonderful, but don't mess with big bang".No wonder that many neo-Thomists know that there is a weird similarity between their own ontology and the ontology of the Stalinist dialectical materialsm, because both were defending a version of naive realism: objects as we perceive them, really exist outside and idependently of our perception, and so on. This is why both Catholic philosophy and Dialectical Materialism had such problems with the so-called "open ontology" of quantum mechanics. That is to say, how are we to interpret the so-called principle of uncertainty, which prohibits us from obtaining full knowledge of particles at the quantum level? For Einstein, this principle of uncerainty demonstartes that quantum physics does not provide a full description of reality, that there must be some unknown feature missed by its conceptual aparatus.

As we all know, Heisenberg, Bohr and others insisted that this incompleteness of our knowledge, of our quantum reality, points towards a strange incompleteness of reality itself: a claim which leads to a breathtaking, weird ontology. What kind of ontology? Let me give you a well known example. When we want to simulate reality within an artificial digital medium, we do not have to go to the end, we just have to reproduce features which make the image realistic from the spectator's point of view. Say, when you are playing a digital PC game, if there is a house in the background, the programmer does not have to construct the house's entire interior since we expect that the participant, the player will not want to enter the house, or the construction of a virtual person in this space can be limited to his exterior. (You know, when you interact with a person there, it's not in the programme bones and so on, it's not part of the rules of the game). We just need maybe a programme which will just fill in this gap if the participant's activity necessitates it. It is like when you scroll down a long text on a computer screen. Earlier and later pages do not pre-exist our viewing them. In the same way, when we simulate a virtual universe, the microscopic structure of objects can be left blank, and if you see stars on the horizon, you know the sky in a digital game, if the stars appear hazy, blurred, we need not bother to construct the way they would appear to a closer look, since there is no closer look in the game. Nobody will go up there to get such a look at them.

Now you get my point. The interesting idea here is that the quantum indeterminacy which we encounter when we enquire into the tiniest components of our universe can be read in exactly the same way as the limited resolution of our simulated world in a PC game, that is to say, as a sign of the ontological incompleteness of what we experience as reality itself. That is to say, let us imagine a god who is creating the world for us human inhabitants to dwell in. His task could be made easier (I quote here Nicholas Ferm... Introduction to philosophy) by only needing to furnish those parts that its inhabitants need to know about, for example the microscopic structure of the earth's interior could be left blank, at least until someone decides to dig down deep enough, in which case the details could be hastily filled in as required..

[Compare: "If we but knew what we do when, we choose to delve and hew" G Manley Hopkins "Aspens" - Ed.] which case the details could be filled in as required. If the most distance stars are hazy, no-one is going to get close enough to erealise that something is amiss. I love this theory because.. you got it why: When God created the world, he under-estimated us. He was too lazy. He thought that the limits of our knowledge is atoms. He thought that we will not go beyond the atom by dividning it, so why waste precious time constructing things there, he left it open, you know "Who cares if the place of a partcle is this or that, let's leave it open". But we got a little bit too intelligent for god, we approached the atom, we approached the limit.

Now of course comes the counter-question, But what has this to do with materialism? Isn't this entire vision precisely based on the theological view: there must be a creator. My answer is No. That is to say, it's not necessary to read this, as it were, ontological incompleteness of reality as a sign that we live in a simulated universe, but we can simply read it as a sign of the onotlogical incompleteness of reality itself, and this I think is the difficult thing to accept. That is to say that reality is in itself incomplete, and our common sense tells us that if realty itself is incomplete it will collapse into itself , you know you can play the game, but at some unltimate level, in order for things to exist, they must fully, ontologically exist. If reality is to really exist out there, it has to be complete all the way down. Otherwise we are dealing with fiction that hangs in the air, like appearances that are not appearances of a substantial something. But here precisely again, I think quantum physics offers a model of how to think such an open ontology, and I claim, ruthlessly manipulating ... [?] Alain Badiou, he formulated the same thing in his idea of pure multiplicity as the ultimate category. Reality is the multiplicity of multiplicities which cannot be generated or constituted from or reduced to some form of "ones" as its elementary atomic constituents. The difficult thing is to think multiplicity as original. You get my point. There is a mulitplicity which is not a mulitplicity of "ones": multiplicity comes before one. No matter how far we progress in our analysis of multiplicities, we never reach the Zero-level of simple constituents. You can go endlessly on. The only background of multplicities is just zero - the void.

Therein resides, I think, Alain Badiou's ontological breakthrough: the primordial opposition is not that of one and zero, but between zero and multiplicities, and the "one" emerges later. To put it more radically, since only "Ones" fully really exist, multiplicities and zero are the same thing. Zero is multiplicities, without the Ones that would guarantee their ontological consistencies. So when Badiou speaks about multiplicities and the void, his point is not the vulgar Democritian theory one: "Yes I know, multiplicities are small particles running all over the place and the void is the space" - No! Imagine multiplicities, but the more you divide them, it's only more open space. The zero is the substance of multiplicities. And now comes a bit of cultural theory: shared ideology and Lebenswelt illustrated by tiny details. Difference between Europe ans US. In America the lift goes from 1 (ground). (Incidentally, they sometimes exclude 13 in high rise buildings - but of course, God knows your 14 is really 13... subjectivist idealism...) For Americans, you start with one, you don't need zero, the Big Other. In France it goes from 0, 1, 2, etc. there has to be a zero background. But in Poland, it goes 0 then directly to 2, 3, 4! There is no "1"! It's like they read Badiou's Being and Event. I asked the lift operator, where is the "1"? He said "The moment you start to count, zero becomes One"! In order to count, zero has to be counted as one!

So you see my point. Contrary to this idea that materialsim means this full reality out there fully intologically constituted, I think the real challenge today is to think this materialism of multiplicities against the background of the void. What we should do here is an excursus into Kant. It's an old distinction I refer to all the time, a wonderful Kantian distinction between negative and infinite judgement. Negative judgement you negate a predicate: infinite judgement you don't negate a predicate, you affirm a non-predicate. You can negate the statement "You are dead" with "You are not dead" i.e. "You are alive". But Infinite judgement would be "You are undead", and it invites us to imagine an infinity of the undead. And I think we should do the same thing here. If we take the axiom that material reality is all there is, if we negate it in the mode of negative judgement, then we say that material reality is not all there is. (This is idealism... Ha ha, materiality is not all there is...) What we should say is not "material reality is not all there is" but "material reality IS non-all", there is nothing outside, it is just incomplete in itself. And this is very hard to accept (if I come back to the beginning) both for the vulgar materialists and the new-age idealists... but some conclusing remarks on ecology. I think the true site of the struggle for materialsim today is ecology. Now let me elaborate an idea that I had with Badiou in conversation. Ecology has today all the chances of developing into the predominant form of ideology, of our global capitalism. I'm more and more convinced that even multiculturalism doesn't look so well, liberalism (if you dig down to the end) it's ecology. Ecology is effectively, as Badiou put it to me in a private conversation, the new opium for the masses, replacing religion. Why?

It takes over the old religions' fundamental function of putting on an unquestionable authority which can impose limits. The lesson this ecology is constantly hammering home is our finitude: We are not cartesian subjects extracted from reality, we are finite bengs embedded in the biosphere which vastly transgresses our horizon, in our expoitation of natural resources we are borrowing from the future so we should treat our earth with respect, as something ultimately sacred, as something that should not be totally unveiled, something that should forever remain a mystery, a power we should trust, not something we sould explode and dominate. While we cannot gain full mastery over our biosphere, unforntuately it is in our power to derail it, disturb its balance, and so on. This is why, although ecoogists are all the time demanding that we change our way of life, underneath this is its opposite. It conceals a deep distrust of development, of progress, every radical change can have the unintended consequence of triggering a catastrophe. This distrust was given today a new impetus by today's bio-genetics, which is on the verge of a crucial breakthrough, namely, until now geneticists were confined to tinkering, tweaking the DNA of existing organisms (taking a gene from a bacterium an inserting it into a pigm, or whatever). But now the prospect is to produce life that will be wholly new, not in any way a genetic descendant of existing biological organisms. The initial members of each newly formed organism will have no ancestors at all. So the genome itself of this organism will be artificially put together. First individual biological building blocks will be fabricated, then they will be combined into an entirely new, synthetic, self replicating organism. As we know, scientists designate this as "Life 2.0", as opposed to our "natural" life that is "Life 1.0". This is effectively a kind of end of nature. Synthetic life is not just supplimenting natural life, it turns "natural" life itself into a kind of imperfect species of synthetic life. So there are effectively some breath-taking prospects here. My idea is that those who oppose most ferociously this prospect are precisely religious leaders and environmentalists. For both there is something of a transgression, of entering a prohibited domain, this idea of creating a new form of life from scratch. And this brings us back to the idea of ecology as the new opium of the masses.

The underlying message is again a deeply conservative one - any change can only be a change for the worse. Quote from a newspaper report that illustrates on this typical ecological attitude: "Behind much of the resistance to this new synthetic life is the untuition that nature, or God, created the best of all possible worlds. Charles Darwin believed that the myriad designs of nature's creations are perfect honed to do whatever they are meant to do. Animals that see, hear, feed, sing, or plants that feed from the suns rays", so on and so on. I claim that this reference to Darwin is totally misleading. The ultimate lesson of Darwin is the exact opposite in that nature tinkers and improvises with with great losses and catastrophes accompanying every limited success. Is the fact that 90% of the human genome is junk DNA with no clear function not the ultimate proof of it. Consequently the first clear lesson to be drawn is the one repeatedly drawn by Stephen J Gould, of the utter contingency of our existence. There is no evolution. Catastrophes and broken equilibriums are part of natural history. At numerous points in the past, life could have turned into an entirely different direction. The main source of our energy, oil, is the result in the past of a catastrophe of unimaginable dimensions. And I think this again, is what we must accept. The first premise of materialist ecology is "nature" doesn't exist - Like Lacan said "La femme n'existe pas" - if we mean by nature some kind of mythic, balanced, self-reproducing universe which is then derailed by human hubris, and to which we must return. I quite agree with those who claim that there is in the predomonant form of a kind of secularist version of this religious idea of the fall. And this is the truly difficult materialist thing. Of curse we have to do something. I'm totally pro-ecologist. But we have to drop the ideas of mather nature, balanced nature disturbed by humans. We should go even further and reject a certain anthropology that we find in almost the entirety of modern philosophy (Kant, Hegel, Nietsche Heidegger, even early Lacan) this idea that man is a sick-unto-death, sick nature and derailed nature. Nature is already in itself sick, confused. Again there is no nature. What does this mean practically?

There is no previous standard to which - this would be the practical advice for ecological politics - we can return. My favourite ecological book is the one, an American scientist, I forgot his name, who demonstrated that nature on our earth already to such an extent integrated to our pollution that if our pollution was to diminish too fast, then it would have a catastrophic effect for animal life. No, I'm not saying that Ha Ha so we can do whatever we want. The situation is more terrifying. Of course I believe there can be catastrophes and so on, but there is nothing but catastrophes. We don't have a ground. We have nowhere to return to. So we should also drop another idea, that the ultimate source of our ecological problems is alienated premination [?] of scientific universe, science manipulating but we should not forget that there is a prior (you know this phenomenological, Husserlian description) prior to every scientific objectification there is the lifeworld and we are irreducibly immersed into the lifeworld. This is for me precisely the catastrophe. Why? Let's ask ourselves a simple question. You read about global warming, blah blah blah, ozone hole, well look up as much as you want, you won't see ozone hole. I mean we totally have to rely on science. On the other hand, a scientist - where does this mysterious fact comes that although the possibility of catastrophe is convincingly demonstrated by scientists, we humanity do not take serious measures to react to it.

[A message in the same vain as Adorno and Heidegger - did I read it in Safranski? - that there is a crisis, but the catastrophe is that we don't know it is a crisis. - Ed.]

I think it is this fetishist sp{?}.. we know very well that it's true but we don't believe it. Why? Precisely b... What happens? You read about catatrophye, then you go out, what a nice star, look at the sky, and you really can't believe that this natural life world can be destroyed. So I think that precisely in order to confront properly ecology, we should all become Cartesian subjects. we should renounce our reliance on the Lifeworld and so on.

[To conclude]. This materialist lesson, to return, is for me the lesson of the book of Job, because what really happens there... Job and three theologists. Did you notice the strange parallel between the structure of the book of Job and the structure of Freud's most famous dream account with which he opens "The interpretatin of Dreams", of Irma's injection? The structure there is the same: first there is a catastrophe, the dreamer (Freud) looks into Irma's throat and there is the horror and catastrophe, the a shift to three stupid doctors who produce conflicting reasons why Freud is not guilty: there ws no injection or Irma was already infected whatever - doesn't the same thing happen in the book of Job. First the catastrophye, he loses everything cows, pigs, wives, daughters, then come the three ideologues. This is the zero level of ideology: the three theologists come to Job and say there is a deeper meaning to your catastrophe, that is what we should resist. This is how ecology predominantly functions today: there is a deeper meaining, and this is why God is the only true materialist there (in the Book of Job), who comes and says There is no deeper meaning, everything is a miracle, as GKC says, God is for a moment an atheist, a pure immanentist, there is no transcendent master. Which is why, I think, we have to read Christ as a repetition of Job. What dies on the cross with Christ? As God knew, what dies is not an earthly representative of a transcendent God, but God AS the transcendent master of the universe. What dies on the cross, for me, is this idea of God as the ultimate guarantee of meaning, this vulgar metaphor that I hate that all creation is like a painting, that when we see a catastrophe it is as if when you look at a picture and you look too close and all you see only the stain, but you look from an appropriate distance and what you saw as a stain actually contributes to the harmony of the whole. So the lesson of Christianity for materialists, the lesson of Christ, we cannot afford this withdrawal, confronting horrible things, I don't know... Holocaust, concentration camps so on, other catastrophes, it is vulgar to say that this appears as a catastrophe close up, but looked at from a distance there is harmony. There is no Big Other. This is why this would be a more materialist reading of why Christ sacrificed himself. The reading is "No all we can do is here, there is no Father up there who takes care of it that everything is ok". So in a way I think it's the opposite. Not "Trust God", but "God Trusts Us". All that can be done is we should do it. In this sense, with this incomplete notion of reality... it opens this space for freedom. there is freedom, but only in an ontologically unfinished reality.

Thank you."

In answer to a question, he clarifies the point about Life 2.0. He says that the very moment you have Life 2.0, it "denaturalizes" nature, which becomes Life 1.0, an imperfect version of synthetic nature. he draws an analogy: the moment we realise a pill, a chemical that can change our psychology, it makes us realise that the position which we recognise as free (i.e. our psychology before the pill) is also brain chemistry, just another brain chemistry arrived at randomly through natural evolution. He says the same thing has emerged in Habermas, a line drawn, hab says that Life 2.0 threatens freedom, and has written a book to this effect with the Pope Ratzinger. A more serious, radical philosophy says it's not a question of saving freedom but of how is freedom ontologically grounded, and so on.

Kierkegaard, Book of Job, Zizek

At the weekend I am glad to have a bit of money in my pocket, so I can buy myself a pair of shoes, and my daughter a pair of shoes (two in fact!), and help her mummy a little. See? I am a person doing as many, many others do. If I can just show that I can look after myself, it should be enough that one looks after oneself. That is what Christianity is enabling us to do. To love ourselves as we do our neighbours, because there is no-one else to do it. If we can once perceive that there is no-one else, then we know we must do it for ourselves and we can then see that the way we would choose to do it, to live is a Christian way of life. This is Kierkegaard. (The choice of Marxism – or rather as Zizek might qualify it, Stalinism - is finding a “something else”, which is “History”). I saw Zizek at the cinema last night. "The Pervert's Guide to Ideology". It is at the closing of this film directed by Sophie Fiennes – of the Fiennes dynasty – that Zizek comes to consider the book of Job, as he did to great effect in his EGS talk "Materialism and Theology" (2007, on YouTube). Zizek says that in this important book, God confirms it is Job who is correct, not the three theologian-friends who come to Job, offering explanations for Job’s suffering. Job rejects all their interpretations and keeps to his line that his sufferings are because God is God. Because God can. And God supports Job. In Zizek’s words “God confirms that there is no God!”, so that Christianity is the best atheism! (LOL!) Zizek is very good in the last ten minutes of this film. (Just skip the rest). He wants to point out that whereas leaders such as Stalin might have been at pains to show that they are just like the ordinary people, the interesting early “Czech New Wave” film of Milos Forman “The Firemen’s Ball”, which shows ordinary people to be really not worth wanting to be like! So the best satire on the leader who claims to be representative of the ordinary people (Stalin or whoever) is to satirise the ordinary people whom he claims to esteem. Being among ordinary people, fitting in, showing that one can get on, and yet being in touch with that there is no-one else, that alone-ness, an infinity, and carry on.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Wittgenstein's notion of "Private Language" and fear of dependence

Many have written about Ludwig Wittgenstein's efforts, in his posthumously published work "Philosophical Investigations", to invalidate, or dispel, what he called "private language". I get the impression that those esteeming Wittgenstein, or who identify with "analytical" philosophy, take a pride in this kind of thing, elimintaion. I am interested to learn of some people in psycho-analytical community who draw on Wittgenstein's work, as it gives ways to identify (and evolve out of) "narcissistic" psychopathology. I have become aware of Wittgenstein's work and concerns indirectly, taking up philosophy to combat a particular kind of thinking and mental space which in my view is the space that Wittgenstein occupiedand out of which he fought his way. Thus, coming to grasp what might have motivated Wittgenstein in his early work, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, I did not wish to read it! In a small way, philosophy arose for me as both a path to some sort of self-hood and the means to defend myself against the kind of thinking that could cause someone to neeed to write a work like the Tractatus. Wittgenstein concluded with silence before the ethical. Kierkegaard, whose writing activated my mind, attempts to communicate things about aesthetic, ethical and Christian disctinctions to life, getting to these things indirectly. It was significant for me to discover his (pseudonymous) writing on an ironic stance towards life, because this is like seeing both sides of a limit: how can one be ironic without some awareness of what one is not being? But my trajectory through philosophy also brought me to appreciate the place of pasychopathology, and narcissitic psychopathology, which can not only give rise to the kinds of dilemmas that caught Kierkegaard (between those modes of existence), but also also generate thinking that is geared to avoid dependence on the world/other, which is close to what, I think, Wittgenstein is getting at with his notion of a private language. I can reflect on deeply felt responses to the possibility of architecture in the world, and the possibility of having that role. It was a very troubling thing for me to allow “Architecture” to be, the idea being accompanied by a strong feeling of indignation towards “Architects” (in general) that “they” should seek to “impose” their creations on “us”. The situation in which I found myself was such that pressed this response out of me, as I was putting myself forward as a person who would be an architect. I seemed to want to say “Everyone has ideas, what’s so special about yours that gives you to feel entitled to foist it on us?” Now this way of putting my response, back then, has been with me for many years. It set up a very deep paradox for me, who put himself forward as one who would be an architect. I could also see that the response called up the idea that there is a measure or a standard according to which “Architecture” (and “Architects”) should conform. I seemed to need to rely on there being an objective correctness of form, or an objective power that is deciding what and what is not to be allowed as Architecture. Now in some respects, this supported a sense of there being justice, or fairness, in the world and a rationality that can order things. But underneath the supposed measure of correctness or standard, was another notion: that one would recognise when the measure had been applied, or when the lack of correctness had been demonstrated. In this was contained a kind of omniscience and a double standard. On the one hand it appealed to a measure to which “we” should all submit, and then it arrogated to itself the power to judge when the measure has been met. "Are you getting better? How do you know if you're getting better?" is a question that might be put to an artist by someone who takes it that the question can be answered. But the question arises from having the wrong model of what is going on. The question may come from an unsympathetic stance towards what is being asked about. The one who tries to answer it (perhaps because he very much needs the other's support and understanding) inevitably finds himself trying to express in words, make a demonstration of, what can't be expressed in words. This calls up what I take to be Wittgenstein's project: to state what can and cannot be demonstrated to be true in language. This insistent voice, demanding justification, was ruthlessly applied to my self, so that all forms of life that I might take were ruled out in advance, all ways of being were taken to be in-correct, so that no position could be occupied, without seeming to be at fault. And it was the finding fault which maintained the source of that voice in its authority. I’m so glad that I could break this voice down by pressing on, firstly by attempting to make art in a committed way. (It was the commitment to a life which exloded the distancing from life contained in that omnipotence). This brought out painful paradoxes. Making art was good because it took work explicitly out of the domain of correct measurement. But also, inevitably, the question of language of painting or style, had to be broached. A language of painting had emerged with the thing that painting was making sense of, or, in other words, with the painting practice, and with a sense of identity. But then the problem had to be faced that the language one has arrived at must draw on what is already out there. It does not make sense to hear an artist say that he cannot borrow from another artist’s work because, in effect, “stealing is wrong”, because any language he has already acquired can only have been acquired by taking from others. The anxiety of influence is well known to artists. These were excrutiating problems. But ones that can be understood in terms of kinds of self disorder, or personality disorder, that is kinds of pathologies of “narcissism”. No texts gave me greater insight and ammunition for getting beyond that voice than J S Mill’s essays “Bentham” (1838) and “Coleridge”. It seems to me that the voice which strives for this justice or fairness, the submission of all things to a measure (and the assumption of a position of omniscience), is really a demand that all things be intelligible to “me”, and that this voice emerges because things are not intelligible. In particular, things in the world that are calling up feeling reponses may be unsettling because they provoke awareness of lack of range of feeling, a sort of sickness, of groundlessness, of lack of being. The omiscience is a defence against the destructive emotion of envy, which itself is a terror of being dependent and incorporate things that appear threatening to the self. It’s very hard to grasp. It’s a dangerous business. ********** October 2013 On the shelves of an academic library (Birkbeck, University of London) there are one or a few books from the mid 20th century given over to Wittgenstein's "private language" idea. As I passed them the other day, I remember having had a deep concern with language, that is, with visual language. How is it that someone can address himself to painting and yet continue, even a very long way, under the impression that one is not "entitled" to "borrow" elements of visual "style" (i.e. language) from other artists because one does not "understand" "their" language, and yet simultaneously work towards attaining a language? At the most acute level there is an apprehension here that others' visual language seeks to attain a kind of precision, a correspondence with... something, while a simultaneous urge for a final authenticity. This notion of authenticity strikes me as close to the idea of a "private language"? And yet, in a state of acute self-consciousness, this visual artist is immediately aware that such an apprehension has no place in that context (the making of art) because it pre-supposes that whatever language one already has has been acquired through some sort of pre-assessment of the intelligibility of others' statements (paintings). It is as if (visual) statements have been met and compared to something already known, a kind of measure or standard, and by that "understood". [It has been said often by philosophers that a drive towards a philosophically, conceptually "pure" language, composed of "atomic" or "verifiable" propositions, seems always to overlook that there must already be language to have any notion of in what its conceptual purity might consist]. This marks a kind of detachment from others (if not the world), and an effort always to make of the other nothing different, to keep things familiar and safe, to render all things reducible to something intelligible to "us". This is, to my mind, the very essence of the cristicism that Mill makes of Bentham. Wittgenstein seems to have attained his self-criticism (if "Philosophical Investigations" is taken to be a kind of rebuttal of his earlier logical atomism of the "tractatus") in a way that parallels the perspective Mill gained on his former mentor. Another idea occurs with that mention of "authenticity". In the ambitious artist was a drive for authenticity, and the ambition was precisely to move away from some place of in-authenticity through a way of making paintings that was its own project. One was in effect composing a person, building a self. I am quite sure this process of engagement with painting is the way open to acquire "self", through a sort of recognition or being-known or looked-back-at, which - for whatever reason - was not possible through human relations. It's interesting and bears a lot of consideration... Kierkegaard's work can be seen to dwell a good deal on the authenticity of a life. I can't help suspecting that Kierkegaard has been driven to his incredible depth-psychologies for much the same need to quell a kind of omniscience, a way that is all-knowing and yet out of contact with life. Wasn't it Hegelian thought he reacted against? The Hegelian system. (I'm laughing remembering that moment in Jarman's film "Wittgenstein" where W says that were he to read Hegel he would "go stark raving mad"). I can't help but suspect that Kierkegaard was appalled at a terrible dread completeness in the Hegelian mode of thought [in spite of its insistence on becoming and ceaseless change, there is a notion of Mind and my-attaining-it-after-all-again which seems to make it limitless] reinforced by his father's instilling dread feelings in him through his childhood. The reality of choice breaks that completeness open and down. Has my reader read the autobiography of Bryan Magee "Confessions of a Philosopher"? I came to this book after having had the serious experience of registering Leavis's criticism of C P Snow, so at once being able to recognise not only the "learned ignorance" residing in me, but also the nigh-on-senselessness of "analytical philosophy".

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Husserl (1859-1938) and Popper (1902-1992)

Husserl's last work was "The crisis in the European sciences and transcendental phenomenology", based on lectures he gave in Prague in 1935. I notice a part headed "the verificational character of natural science's fundamental hypothesis." In 1934 Karl Popper's second, and most famous, work was published in Vienna, called "Logik der Forschung" ("the logic of scientific discovery"). In this book, Popper expounds his disagreement with the Vienna Circle in their attempts to render philosophy scientific and free of metaphysics, and simultaneously proposes a criterion for the demarcation between science and non-science, on the basis that conjecture and refutation, and not induction and verification, characterise science. Both these thinkers were responding to a contemporary crisis in the sciences. Popper gave a Kantian metaphysical underpinning to a philosophy of science, where the positivists sought to banish metaphysics from philosophy. I am sure someone has made a link between these two thinkers with their shared concern with science and it's relation to the humanities, and the ramifications of Godel's theorem and Einstein's theory of special and general relativity, which placed the observer in the world?

Monday, 15 July 2013

"Closet narcissistic" mum: enacted mother & enacted child

Lost self. This mother was not going to allow any sort of bond with her child. I see her holding a baby and really feeling the baby to be not of her. She accepts the baby into her arms and assumes a beatific pose, as if the baby is blessed who comes into her arms, whoever the baby is, and this blessedness is for others to see. That is the important thing. She imparts bliss, but generally. This particular little human being who has come into her arms is a baby in general. Without the presence of others to see her enactment of good mothering, then… nothing. The baby is responded to exclusively as a means to be seen by others to be doing something well, in this case, mothering. The baby is not felt by her to be of her, a little life in her care, for her to nurture, who needs her. The possibility of receiving love has never happened to this mother, so there is no concept of love coming from the baby for her that could be anything for her. Who she is precludes receiving love from any place which she cannot simultaneously feel to be adored and special by others. She needs to be able to conceive of herself being seen by others to be loved by the one whose love those others also wish for, so she can conceive of herself as envied. In order to ensure that, Yes, the one who loves her is the one whose love the others do envy, the one needs to be a super-being. This baby, like everyone in her real life, falls short of that super-being. If they are there at all, it can only be as a kind of proof of her own specialness. This baby can’t be of her because it is so needy crying raging distressed. To allow attachment with the baby and identify with the baby’s vulnerability and mess and glee and drooling, would explode her self-image. Having this mess and vulnerability in her, she would no longer be desirable to the super-being whose love she must continue to feel. Without the fantasised love of the super-being, there is nothingness. There has never been love for who-she-is, and in the absence of the love for who-she-is, who-she-is has simply not happened. In the place of who-she-is is a fiction, a kind of enactment of a blessed and good child, which self-image is all there is, and is sustained only as long as she can find this enacted self mirrored in the world, which is other people’s idea of her. Her way of mothering is a performance, an enactment of what she thinks is others' expectation of how good mothers are when they mother well. She enacts good mothering, and somehow, with her body (it is unmistakeable, however hard it is to describe what exactly she does) communicates “Now I am mothering”, and one feels oneself under a pressure to not be seen to be inattentive or unresponsive, and one is pressed – without anything having been said – to acknowledge her effort-ful mothering by mirroring it, enacting being a good child. One is pressed, therefore, to participate in her enactment. What passes between mother and child, then, becomes an unspoken collusion for nothing other than to elicit admiration from on-lookers of the scene for the enacted good mothering. Of any real bond and feeling of connection between mother and child there is nothing. The entire engagement is geared (without anything explicit having been said) to propping up her self-image and distorts proper relations. Where is the child in this? Obviously not there. For him the enactment is in place of who-he-is. The one can’t go on simultaneously as the other goes on. That kind of separation between character and self really only makes sense if there is some stable self to which to return after the character goes. Now I’m a father, I’ve seen the way she “plays” with little children. She observes. There is no shared enjoyment. Her enjoyment, I have learned, is smothered by my existence. I recall being with my daughter in my mum’s home. Toys are out on the floor. I allow myself to be with my daughter’s game, in her world, give myself up to it. And the response I have from my daughter invokes envy in “treasure chest” granny. She is angry and envious towards my daughter, who is getting my attention. And what does she do? She sits nearby, looking on, and holds herself apart in a very communicative way. She communicates something… what is it? She has become an observer on something that is nothing to do with her, as if me and my daughter (her son and grandchild) are people in general. Experience, where she is at, is always somewhere remote, in the past. It is as if she has been cut off from where she is, and she is not engaged with us. She tells us that we and this moment mean nothing to her. Readers may like to watch a short YouTube video by psychotherapist Joseph Burgo, who talks about damaged self(-esteem) and "narcissistic defences" with insight and compassion, with reference to film portrayals.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

What neuroscience can't do.

Here's an interesting talk by philosopher Roger Scruton from 2012, "The Humanities In the Face of Brain Science".
He has things to say about understanding the difference between kitsch and art.
His preferences are not necessarily mine, but I think he's right that some future MRI machine worn on the head will not help me to judge whether this before me is art or kitsch.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Science popularising - scientists aestheticise science but deny art

There is a good deal of space in all media given over to science, bringing its intrinsic interest and challenge and significance to all. There are some fantastic resources, free to access.
It is important to bring science thinking and the history of science as it has developed in the West to everybody. Critical thinking is applied in science, and yet examples abound of people of people slipping out of a critical stance into dogmatic assertion, most prominently, perhaps, when it comes to questions of origins (i.e. "creation of species" vs "evolution of species"). 
But I think too much of the thinking that goes into this communication of science thinking and history is uselessly and counter-productively concerned with making scientists appealing. I suppose there is anxiety over falling numbers of young people choosing to study science (at least here in the UK that seems to be the case). And the thinking is that self-conscious young people need to see that scientists too can have TV and media careers.


In January 2011, in a BBC TV programme “Science Under Attack”, nobel-prize-winning biologist Sir Paul Nurse challenged the writer James Dellingpole over the latter’s view that the scientific case for anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is not only questionable on scientific grounds, but also politically motivated.

The twitchy Daily Telegraph journalist Dellingpole latched onto the University of East Anglia Climate Scientists’ massaged presentation of climate data as the clinching evidence that scientists act in favour of their careers no less than in favour of scientific truth. To Sir Paul the “Climategate” scandal was a trivial matter, because the massaged presentation of data did not materially alter the conclusions drawn in the scientific paper in which the data appeared. I have no doubt Sir Paul was right on this. But the scandal had done much to undermine the esteem in which science and scientists are presently held in the general population. Sir Paul (president of the FRS) wanted to take the argument back to the ones discrediting scientists.

But as far as perception of scientists goes, surely he only made things worse?

In conversation with Dellingpole, the scientist was ready, without any real forethought one senses, to draw an analogy between climate change sceptics challenging the scientific consensus and a non-scientist cancer-sufferer’s denial (in favour of his own independent research) of the medical consensus over the best treatment of his cancer.

Paul Nurse's choice of analogy was condescending and mildly insulting. I think Dellingpole was right to object that Nurse was caricaturing those who are critical of the presentation of the climate change case as quacks not able to distinguish between good and bad argument. His choice of analogy was revealing in this respect. Though scientists aim to practice value-free science, we know that science as it has been practised has done so within a value-laden framework, which we can attempt to describe and judge. Our not being mathematicians is no automatic bar to making such judgements. For example, any intelligent and reasonably well informed person wishing to spend some time listening to one or two of the many reputable presentations on AGW available on the internet (here’s one I recommend) can derive a good deal of the detail of the debate within science over climate modelling and so forth, with no specialist knowledge of mathematics or science. Conversely, as Sir Paul Nurse’s example shows, there is clearly a need for scientists to appreciate the kind of learning that can spot the significance of the choice of an analogy in the presentation of an argument.


Examples of scientists venturing out of their areas of expertise have been around a lot in the recent spate of "new atheism".

An intersting moment occurs in the programme “The Case For God” in which Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of British Orthodox synagogues, attempts to engage with prominent non-believers and people who regard themselves as atheist and who write books denouncing faith and religion.
One of his interlocutors is the neuro-biologist and Professor of Neuro-science at the University of London, Colin Blakemore.

Their conversation turns to the limits of scienific explanation, and Rabbi Sacks puts the question to Professor Blakemore:

“Do you seriously believe, Colin, that this entire Professor Colin Blakemore, who takes moral stands on the integrity of science and medical research, is actually a self-flattering myth that you are weaving around yourself, because actually all thise grey cells in your brain have worked this out long before, and you never had a choice, you couldn’t have been other than a professor of science?”

and Colin Blakemore answers:

“Yeah, I do believe it”.

Behind the question is the proposition already made in the conversation by Professor Blakemore, that the phenomenon we call subjectivity is the product of physical processes which it is within the domain of science to explain as law-bound, just as every other phenomenon occurring in the universe is law-bound.

To Rabbi Sacks, the immediate consequence of this view is the absence of free will, and the rendering of subjectivity – the awareness of oneself as an agent – an illusion.

Let's accept that Blakemore really does believe that he had absolutely no choice in the matter of becoming who he is, and that any feeling that he may have had in choosing was an illusion.

(Having spent some time hearing thorough-going materialists put their case, e.g. certain speakers at conferences at the Ian Ramsay Centre for Science and Religion), I also hear Professor Blakemore insisting that there is only stuff in the universe, and a complete account of stuff, on the path of which we are, will render consciousness transparent. As we have looked closer, however, what is observed becomes observer dependent: we can't draw ourselves out of the picture. I don't really warm to these kinds of debates, in which the case for "humanities" is answering to criticisms, or demands for justificsation, that emerge from standpoints that deny common ground. I suppose I find the people unsympathetic. Be with who we like to be with!) 

The interesting moment comes when both Sacks and Blakemore both draw the same conclusions about eachother’s view (i.e. that it is reductive), from their opposing views.

Blakemore takes Sacks’ position, holding to the reality of human subjectivity, as reductive in the Dawkinsian manner of finding any claim to an extra-scientific dimension as a kind of “cop-out”, the positing of something likened to a fairy story in the place of explanation, and so curtailing of the aspiration to know scientifically. Blakemore also stresses that beauty (and, he adds, he uses the term beautiful "advisedly" - by which I think he mean us to understand – as if we might be inclined to doubt it – that he is here using the term "beautiful" in the sophisticated sense of something occurring to the mind and not merely sensuous) resides in the scientific explanation, which he fears others tend to overlook when they claim that scientific explanation is not all there is.

Sacks, on the other hand, holds Blakemores’s account to be “pure reductivism”, reducing humans to “just electrical impulses in the brain”. Blakemore is happy to concede that his view does indeed reduce humans to electrical impulses in the brain, and is reductive in so far as it does away (for him) with any call for faith or religion. But he takes exception to Sacks’ use of the word “just”. Blakemore says “[With that word “just”] You diminish it [us] by suggesting that to believe that we are causal machines, where we are simply caused by events in the past, is trivial, when it is unbelievably complex, very surprising and really quite remarkable”.

So, for Sacks’ Blakemore’s view is absolutely reductive because it renders subjectivity – I really don’t see that this conclusion can be avoided – an illusion. Blakemore qualifies his acknowledged reductivism, saving something one supposes to be uniquely human – the capacity to perceive this, and not that, as beautiful – by pointing to the sheer stupendousness that this agglomeration of organic molecules can give rise to the illusion that “here is Colin Blakemore”. The wondrousness of this fact is the remedy Blakemore proposes to any despair one may feel at having only the illusion of selfhood or of free will, and only the illusion that now I am feeling something to be beautiful. (What basis is there for any moral discernment if the freedom to choose this and not that to be beautiful is absolutely devoid of freedom?). For Blakemore, Sacks’ view is reductive because (he thinks) it forecloses on what will be accessible to human knowing by grasping for stories.

As I re-visit this interesting moment, and Blakemore’s ideas and mode of expression, I am reminded of the comment made by John Stuart Mill of the thought of Jeremy Bentham.

“He had a phrase, expressive of the view he took of all moral speculations to which his method had not been applied, or (which he considered as the same thing) not founded on a recognition of utility as the moral standard; this phrase was 'vague generalities'. Whatever presented itself to him in such a shape, he dismissed as unworthy of notice, or dwelt upon only to denounce as absurd. He did not heed, or rather the nature of his mind prevented it from occurring to him, that these generalities contained the whole unanalysed experience of the human race.” (From “Bentham”, 1838).

Bentham used the term “vague generalities” to stand for the reasons for the reasons people gave for their conduct. In other words, whereas people accounted for their conduct with what they considered to be reasons, Bentham could not see anything underpinning those reasons but “vague generalities”, mere assertions, or cop-outs. One understands Mill to have had real sympathy for Bentham, and admiration for the systmatic nature of his reforming projects in law, for example. Yet, emerging from the crisis of his early twenties, he had to challenge Bentham’s understanding of reasons for conduct. Reason was curtailed to denote something reducible to physical movement. The experience of human kind, what has made human history what it has been, falls out of what is analysable, or even worthy of analysis, in the world view that regards felt experience, subjectivity, as a mere accidental by-product of the random agglomeration of particles. This is what Marilynne Robinson refers to as “the dispelling of inwardness from the modern myth of the self”. But it should not be taken that Sacks (or Robinson) are defending something out of sentimental attachment. Surely they are wanting to acknowledge that there are things which are not humanly knowable, and isn’t this the conclusion that the philosophy of science itself reaches?

The realisation that choice (denoting free will and human agency) are factors in one’s own history, and therefore in how things have turned out - and will turn out - will surely conflict with any view of humanly-knowable (i.e. accessible to science) law-bound processes as ultimately all there is. Attending to how things have turned out, one acknowledges the development of science as being centrally present in it. But the stepping off point into “modern” science, with its mathematical character, occurs within a religious impulse. The early modern “scientists” (the term did not arise until the mid-nineteenth century) were concerned with religion and with God. For them, and for others right down to the time of the publication Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species”  in 1859, and after, “Natural Philosophy” was understanding God’s creation.

One can understand that appealing to subjectivity could appear as a kind of cop-out when the success of one’s science (or maybe even one’s personal contribution to science) has given one to feel vindicated.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Ignorance Reinforces Itself With Respect To History

Being A-historical

In some people close to me (and in me - though I am trying very hard to come through it) there is a strange combination of interest in history and complete historical ignorance.

This comes through in the casual exchanges we are having over the teaching of history and the very funny children’s TV programme “Horrible Histories”.

The “Horrible Histories” sketches are funny. Most of them, maybe even all of them, place our contemporary selves in historical settings. I think of the “Monty Python-esque” gag (I believe they were not the first to do this sort of thing) of having Joan of Arc singing R&B. 

It’s common for us to engage with history by imagining past peoples as like ourselves, only wearing different clothes. This is wrong, but it's a starting point. We know that there haven't always been museums. But we can’t quite work out why there should have ever been a first museum. On the other hand we can readily think of why there might have been a first library (which seems to have come along a very long time before the first museum).

A route into history is making connections to the lives of past people by showing how aspects of the culture of our own day might be present in past cultures, and then seeing that the reverse is true. Wasn’t this the technique employed by Dr David Starkey, when he entered “Jamie’s Dream School” in 2011 and tried to engage with a group of young men and women. Wealth and power and status is very much on display in contemporary urban gang culture. Starkey pointed: “Look! So it was in Rome!”

Yet at some points we start to diverge. After all, the Romans were slave-owning. There were things that separated the people of Rome into very definite and distinct strata. What is our perspective on slavery? Let’s talk about it….

Well, there I am talking to someone close to me, whose habit it is to look upon history as something one has already done. His relationship to history is as something one has already acquired, and condescends to consult once in a while for amusement and edification. For this man feels himself to have climbed to a height so he looks down on the past. This objectifying stance comes across in more or less subtle ways, but really only ever comes out when he speaks about history. It’s there, for example, in his regarding a museum as a “Great place for kids”. But no…. that’s not it. Who would disagree that a museum can be a great place for kids?

The point comes a bit closer when we note that he makes this remark having just returned from a visit to a museum with his nephew, a young man aged sixteen years! Moreover, the visit was to a museum attended by unaccompanied (by kids) adults! Are they kids too? What is going on here?!

Even this doesn’t get close to the style of thinking I really want to convey. Actually this man has only two modes of being when confronting historical information: either paternalistic (it’s good for kids) or as a child himself, unable to critically assess what has been put before him. “A great place for kids and adults?” I reply. Because the tone with which this blank statement is made (“It’s a great place for kids”) suggests – no, it directly communicates to us, that for him the experience was nothing new.

What has mattered most to this man in his life is that he has had power over other men in the world. He is a Bounderby and a Gradgrind in one person.

For him power came through technical-scientific knowledge. The sense of power and complacent ease with which he dismisses the significance of history for him is borne of his having actually experienced and wielded power. (The first of his family to have entered a university, in the late fifties, and free of charge. Emerging from a skilled working class background, he attains professional status. He was upwardly socially mobile. Born in 1938, at the moment of birth of the welfare state, he is of the first generation that came through into adulthood feeling itself to be the very manifestation of rational social life. The harsh conditions of existence that he and his family had known before and during the war were tangibly alleviated with technology and recovering wealth and post-war boom, and the range of possibilities for self-expression expanded, in his life.)

To a young person (I dare say, even the young man of sixteen years who has been taken to the museum), the message taken up in this tone of address is very clear: that there is a way of being in the world such that one can look down on all this history and see it panoramically, laid out below, and that way of being is being in power, and he has it. One can hope and expect and anticipate that sense of omniscience if one can attain power too.

I hope one of my readers will interrupt me here and say “That is the oldest trick in book of the powerful – a “Whig” presentation of history, which makes of history only that chain of events that leads to and justifies us in our power!

But I want to stay with this on an intimate level.
I volunteer the notion that there seem to be two approaches to the presentation of history. One kind is the kind that regards history as so many episodes of good and less-good behaviour, or good and less-good models of civilisation, from our perspective. The other kind is seeking to understand the objects and artefacts and practices that have come down to us, or are present to us, by  imaginative re-creation of the life of the peoples with whom they originated. I think the latter kind takes as its starting point the contingency of our present mode of life, the awareness that it might have been, and might still be, otherwise, because (Look!) peoples have lived differently in the past. I try to appeal to this way of looking at things: “The Romans were fundamentally different to us, and we might know that by recognising the ways that their deepest needs and hopes and fears were expressed in their customs, laws, dress, writing, buildings, and so on”. With this I also try to appeal to the notion that our deepest needs and fears and hopes might similarly be seen in the way we live now, because we are men and women biologically the same as Roman men and women, confronted by the world and death and disasters, and that is the platform from which we might attain insights into the lives of Romans, and of others, and ultimately of ourselves.

This prompts the following comment, again in that schoolmasterly tone of one speaking as if to a child who has just volunteered an extremely naïve view of about some facet of the world.

“Yes, but the Romans are not like us because they didn’t have our knowledge. They didn’t have science, and they didn’t have to cope with all the knowledge that we have to cope with today.”

What we are to understand is that unlike the Romans, we do cope. There is an implicit sense of having mastered what the Romans could not master, and with this, a notion of the Roman as more primitive in the way of being dim, or dull, or lazy. This comment is offered as a complete answer to my suggestion that there are two ways of receiving or approching history. We have nothing to learn from the Romans (or any other culture) because we know more than them. They are primitive. We are advanced. The comment and its tone manifests the very mode of apprehension of history of the former kind, that regards past peoples and civilisations as good and less good attempts to be as we are now.

I believe this kind of flattening of thinking is common in life. It closes off curiosity, it closes off enquiry (except of the kind that adds to the store fo knowledge), it vaunts what we already know and conceals our ignorance of what we don’t know. Its effects are massively limiting on a personal level. The first scientists were rich gentlemen from England, Scotland, France, Italy, Germany. They took themselves off to observe, but were in religion. As Isaiah Berlin writes in his essay “The Divorce Between the Sciences and The Humanities”, it was not long (well, from the time of Descartes to the time of the french Encyclopaedists) before the invention of a science of history that placed the historian as an observer of history in the same position as an observer of nature. Both regarded themselves as completely neutral. The observer effect was inconceivable to them. They were not historically self-aware, they were a-historical. 

One way of that jolts the kind of complacency on display here is understanding science as a cultural practice.
Living in a multi-cultural society and coming alongside people of other cultures, I think, what is it of me that is my culture?
Science is one such thing I can point to. It had cultural beginnings, and in the past, culture is religious culture and the religious character of science is no less present now.

Slavoj Zizek speaks wonderfully richly about this in a lecture from 2007 at the European Graduate School entitled "Materialism and Theology".