Friday, August 27, 2010

My Essay on Genet and Delacroix

Ingres' Paganini
Delacroix' Paganini

"There is something priggish about these young men of the school of Ingres. They seem to think it highly meritorious to have joined the ranks of 'serious painting'...a great number of talented artists have never done anything worthwhile because they surrounded themselves with a mass of prejudices, or had them thrust upon them by the fashion of the moment. It is the same with their famous word beauty which, everyone says, is the chief aim of the arts. But if beauty were the only aim, what would become of men like Rubens and Rembrandt and all the northern temperaments, generally speaking, who prefer other qualities? Demand purity, in other words, beauty, from an artist like Puget and farewell to his verve!" Journal entry by Eugene Delacroix February 9th, 1847

I just had a brief essay published over at Escape Into Life. The essay, entitled "On the Disciples of Ugliness", discusses Jean Genet and Eugene Delacroix and the relation between beauty and ugliness which can be found in their work. In the essay I discuss a contrast between Romantic and Neo-classicist visual art, of perhaps Romanticism and a type of formalism, that is fairly nicely captured in the contrast between Delacroix and Ingres' Paganini's.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

My Poetry

If you are observant you may have realized I added a new link to my blog page. It is a link to three of my poems which were published on the excellent arts site "Escape Into Life". I highly recommend you check out the site even if you, perhaps wisely, have no interest in my poetry.

My Poems

Escape Into Life

Monday, August 16, 2010

The First Volume of Speculations and a bit more about Science

The first volume of the journal Speculations, dedicated to Speculative Realism, is now available. It can be purchased or downloaded for free here, you should check it out. As noted within the volume, not only is it the first journal dedicated to Speculative Realism it is also the first volume of a journal in which every contributor is a philosophy blogger on top of their academic credentials. It is a very interesting project. It's editor is Paul Ennis whose blog is worth checking out.

While perusing the volume I think I was most struck by Fabio Gironi's "Science-Laden Theory: Outlines of an Unsettled Alliance" which focuses on clarifying the origins and nature of the mixed bag which has come to be known as Speculative Realism as well as on investigating the movement's complex relationship to science. In connection with my previous blog post, it is the issue of the conception of science we find in thinkers like Meillassoux which most attracted my attention to Gironi's paper. The general idea is that, while continental philosophy became more and more correlationist, anti-realist and/or social constructivist in the previous century, science was left to be Reality's one remaining champion. As Gironi puts it:

"A reality in-itself which, having been banned by transcendental idealism and phenomenology first, became the open target of postmodernism and social constructivism later. This historical dismissal allowed science to claim privilege on ‘reality’; and yet, what for science was a reason for pride, to ‘postmodern’ eyes was a weak spot, so that science could be identified as the na├»ve—and yet powerful—cousin to be debunked. This is the attitude against which speculative realism is an internal philosophical reaction."

As my previous blog post should suggest, I think it is highly unlikely that "science" in general is a realist phenomenon or that scientists in general are realists. Einstein tends towards realism, for example, while Neils Bohr tended towards instrumentalism. I take the lesson taught to philosophers such as Duhem, Bachelard, Koyre, Kuhn and Feyerabend by the history of science very seriously, namely that there have been many very differently formulated sciences but nothing that could count as the basic characteristics of Science. This is the case both when we attempt to generalize over extended periods of history and when we generalize over the various individual disciplines out of which science is formed. I am tempted to suggest that when speaking of science we are, at best, dealing with a family resemblance. Certainly throughout history, and in the philosophy of science, realism is far from occupying a position of unquestioned dominance.

But the issue isn't about philosophy of science, and for now we might put the history of science aside. Instead let us look at the words of two fairly well respected scientists on the subject.

First we can look at Richard Feynman. In his paper "What is Science?", following an apology for even giving the talk considering his dislike for "philosophical exposition", he states that science is "the result of the discovery that it is worthwhile rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting the race experience from the past." In other words, science is defined for him primarily as a method for evaluating traditionally received wisdom and, through observation, developing new wisdom. In "The Uncertainty of Science" Feynman claims that science is a method of finding things out in which "observation is the ultimate and final judge of the truth of an idea." It is important to observe that Feynman's commitment to the idea of science as primarily a method of discovery and critique prioritizing skepticism and observation is perfectly constructed to deflate the idea that science is based on something like the realist belief in a subject-independent and stable reality. Paul Feyerabend is, at times, just as committed to the idea of prioritizing observation and experience as is Feynman but he believes he can conjoin this priority with his various brands of anti-realism and relativism.

If we really pay attention to Feynman's view we can suggest two possible conclusions. Either the question of realism is an empirical question which observation must be allowed to investigate, in which case it seems pretty clear that no falsification of the various anti-realist positions has yet been produced, or realism is not something which observation can support or falsified, in which case it lacks any scientific status whatsoever. It is interesting to note that Thomas Kuhn DID think that the empirical data which makes up the history of science, for example the structure of paradigm change, suggested conclusions about ontology. Paul Feyerabend, extending and radicalizing Kuhn, thought that those conclusions supported relativism and anti-realism. Certainly both the data and the conclusions of these thinkers have been challenged but their existence should, at the very least, make us hesitate before we speak of science as unquestionably either essentially realist or as having produced discoveries exclusively supporting realism.

The suggestion that realism is a metaphysical position outside the boundaries of scientific inquiry is made, I feel, by Stephen Hawking when he embraces without reserve what he takes to be Popperian positivism. In The Universe in a Nutshell he states:

"Any sound scientific theory, whether of time or of any other concept, should in my opinion be based on the most workable philosophy of science: the positivist approach put forward by Karl Popper and others. According to this way of thinking, a scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make. A good theory will describe a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested. If the predictions agree with the observations, the theory survives that test, though it can never be proved to be correct. On the other hand, if the observations disagree with the predictions, one has to discard or modify the theory. (At least, that is what is supposed to happen. In practice, people often question the accuracy of the observations and the reliability and moral character of those making the observations.) If one takes the positivist position, as I do, one cannot say what time actually is. All one can do is describe what has been found to be a very good mathematical model for time and say what predictions it makes."

Let us say one is concerned with the question of reality as it applies to time. One goes to a physicist such as Dr. Hawking and asks "Is the nature of time stable and independent of human subjectivity?" The answer is likely to be something like the following: "I am not sure what sort of observational consequences either the realist or anti-realist hypotheses will have, and so I can't imagine a test of either hypothesis." But the question is clearly a meaningful and powerful question about the ontology of time. The scientist, as presented by Hawking, is not necessarily attempting to say what time actually (ontologically) is but rather avoids metaphysical claims in preference for claims based on predictive and observational content. One could be a realist, an anti-realist, or an agnostic on the issue and still do science just the way Hawking does. Of course many scientists do speculate beyond the boundaries of their strictly scientific work but their views are varied and not, strictly speaking, the views of "science". It is worth noting, for an example from philosophy of science rather than science proper, that Popper himself was a realist while many have wondered whether his actual philosophy does not rather lead to instrumentalism. At the very least we can say that his realism was methodological, taking the form of a regulative ideal, and seemingly unfalsifiable and thus unscientific by his own standards.

Let me end, then, by stating my concern in a very flatfooted manner. Speculative Realism seems very interested in defining itself as a philosophy, or collection of philosophies, with a specific relationship to science. I worry, however, that it may have too narrow a view of what science is and does. One wonders, for example, what the Speculative Realist champion of Realist Science would say to an instrumentalist or conventionalist scientist?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Berkeley and Meillassoux on what Science Says

While rereading Berkeley's A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge for some work on nominalism I am doing I stumbled upon an interesting moment. In section 58 Berkeley considers an objection to his proposal that things exist as ideas without existing as material objects potentially independent of any mind whatsoever. Specifically, the objector states that science has shown that the earth moves, but as no one can directly observe the movement of the earth science has asserted, and seemingly proven, a claim about something which no mind experiences. Berkeley responds by stating that what the well supported scientific theory should be understood to be about is what would be observed were one to place oneself in a given position in the future in relation to the earth. In other words, the content of the scientific theory is a prediction about future observations and applications based on past observations. Here is the text:

"58. Tenthly, it will be objected that the notions we advance are inconsistent with several sound truths in philosophy and mathematics. For example, the motion of the earth is now universally admitted by astronomers as a truth grounded on the clearest and most convincing reasons. But, on the foregoing principles, there can be no such thing. For, motion being only an idea, it follows that if it be not perceived it exists not; but the motion of the earth is not perceived by sense. I answer, that tenet, if rightly understood, will be found to agree with the principles we have premised; for, the question whether the earth moves or no amounts in reality to no more than this, to wit, whether we have reason to conclude, from what has been observed by astronomers, that if we were placed in such and such circumstances, and such or such a position and distance both from the earth and sun, we should perceive the former to move among the choir of the planets, and appearing in all respects like one of them; and this, by the established rules of nature which we have no reason to mistrust, is reasonably collected from the phenomena."

On reading this I was struck by a surface resemblance to the problem of the arch-fossil in Meillassoux's After Finitude. There Meillassoux claims that some science presents us with "ancestral statements" and the discovery of "arch-fossils". The first of these is understood as a statement about how things were before the development of thought in the universe. Imagine, for example, a hypothesis about the first few minutes following the Big Bang. The second of these are evidences which support ancestral statements. Consider, for example, light reaching the earth from a portion of space over thirteen billion light years away. Such light would be just now reaching us from a time comparably close to the time of the Big Bang and thus almost certainly from a time before the development of any consciousness or thought. Ancestral statements, then, speak of a universe without, and before, consciousness or thought and arch-fossils are evidences of such times. This point is central for Meillassoux for several reasons, not the least of which is that it allows him to claim that the completely honest correlationist must admit to rejecting science. (By a "correlationist", as I have discussed in other posts, Meillassoux means someone who claims that being and thought or being and consciousness are necessarily connect such that it ultimately makes no sense to speak of the one without the other. To be is to be given to consciousness.)

Of course Meillassoux stresses in his book that the problem of ancestral statements is not the same as the problem of the unobservered, i.e. the old problem of whether an event occurs if there is no one there to witness it. He wants to stress that ancestral statements and arch-fossils are not about things which just happen not to have been witness but are rather about things which based upon their very temporal nature could not have been witnessed. Their temporal being necessitates unobservability by consciousness. This being the case, Berkeley's example is not precisely the same. However, his answer is certainly the answer that many a correlationist is likely to jump to and one which Meillassoux, who so often takes Berkeley as a model for the most extreme of his enemies, is familiar with. What is odd, however, is that Berkeley's answer presents a plausible and coherent understanding of what the scientist is actually up to. Even today any number of scientists seem unlikely to object to his description. Meillassoux insists, however, that scientists mean their ancestral statements literally and it is only the sophistic correlationist philosopher who feels the need to hedge the meaning of their statements. Meillassoux states:

"Thus, a philosopher will generally begin with an assurance to the effect that his theories in no way interfere with the work of the scientist, and that the manner in which the latter understands her own research is perfectly legitimate. But he will immediately add (or say to himself): legitimate, as far as it goes. What he means is that although it is normal, and even natural, for the scientist to adopt a spontaneously realist attitude, which she shares with the ‘ordinary man’, the philosopher possesses a specific type of knowledge which imposes a correction upon science’s ancestral statements– a correction which seems to be minimal, but which suffices to introduce us to another dimension of thought in its relation to being."

The question, then, is what a scientific hypothesis actually means or, to put it differently, whether science is even able to formulate ancestral statements when we avoid short cuts or common language translations in our formulations of what a hypothesis or theory states?

Let me first state that it seems that we can find non-temporal arch-fossils and ancestral statements that allow us to clarify the problem by glancing at some of the major developments in twentieth century physics. Subatomic particles are, in their very being, un-able to be directly observed by anything like consciousness. They are small enough objects or events that it seems fairly safe to assert that their very being forecloses all unmediated observation. Statements about subatomic particles are, then, ancestral statements about a region of being, admittedly spacial and not temporal, which by its very nature is independent of any correlation with consciousness or thought. How, then, do scientists understand their hypothesis about subatomic particles? Do they always and simply intend them "literally" and in a naive realist sense? This seems pretty clearly not to be the case. Models of, for example, the structure of the atom are taken to be precisely that, models, partaking more of the nature of metaphor than of factual claims. The models attempt to capture in intuitive forms, as far as possible, the predictive and observational consequences of various theories while suffering from the various drawbacks associated with metaphors, i.e. they work in certain regards but not in others. Look at the debates between Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrodinger concerning wave/particle duality or the uncertainty principle and you will see clashes over how much of the metaphors are useful and how much not. For example, does the uncertainty principle say something literal about subatomic particles, i.e. that they REALLY EXIST as something like waves of probability until they are observed and collapse into a given determined form, or does it say something about the limits of our observational capabilities and the inadequacy of our concepts (metaphors?) "wave" and "particle"? These are old problems and the general way out of them is to state that the meaning of the theories in question is their observational and predictive consequences and not the common-language stories about what the subatomic world is like which we attempt to spin out of them. One focuses on the differences which make a difference in scientific practice.

When I was an undergraduate student at Boston University I studied some physics with Dr. Lawrence Sulak, the discoverer of the finite mass of the neutrino. I was reading a book on super-string theory and asked professor Sulak what he thought about the theory. His response was that it was a beautiful fairy tale. His reasoning was that, at the time, super string theory had no observational or predictive consequences and so didn't exist as an actual scientific theory at all. Clearly here there are also echoes of Popper's proposal that a theory which can never be falsified, because it has no predictive consequences, is not science. One could envision using Popper's guidance to distinguish between the scientific and non-scientific content of a hypothesis which would be a practice of distinguishing between the observational-predictive content of a hypothesis and whatever else they may contain, such as the metaphorical content used to make a hypothesis more imaginable for both the theoretician and common public.

In theoretical physics it is not uncommon to find a very sharp and powerful distinction drawn between the real hypotheses, which tend to consist of mathematical formulations and observational predictions, and the every day common language translations of these hypotheses. To put this in more pragmatic terms, and to connect it with Berkeley's original claim, the hypothesis is about what one can observe now or in the future and what one can do with the hypothesis. This is, arguably, the scientific content of the hypothesis from the standpoint of at least some, and I suspect many, physicists. This point has become more and more important in physics because the hypotheses with which the physicist works have been getting harder and harder to capture in everyday descriptive language.

Astrophysics, because it works at a macro rather than micro level, tends to be more friendly to common language formulations and descriptions. Nonetheless it often enough finds itself forced to admit that the actual content of its theories are mathematical formulations conjoined with observational predictive content and not common language descriptions. Cases of talking about "the warpage of space-time by mass" are a fair example here. At best what we are dealing with in this case are mostly failed metaphors, failed because impossible to imagine even though formulated in everyday descriptive language, for a mathematical formulation of observational predictions. This, then, will be equally true of hypotheses which are taken to be about the universe before the development of consciousness. The scientific content of such hypothesis is conceivably held by some scientists to strictly be their observational predictions and applications, not their everyday descriptive formulation into a story about the early moments of the universe. For an ancestral statement, then, it is precisely not the ancestral part of the statement which seems to be its scientific content. For this reason we might even say that science conceived in this manner is unable to formulate ancestral statements.

I tend to side with Feyerabend on these issues to the effect that there is little to nothing that can be said about Science in general. However it seems to me that we have good reason to think that Berkeley's understanding of scientific practice may be less violent to it than Meillassoux's and, in fact, that Meillassoux may himself be caught in the position of having to admit that he is playing the role of the sneaky philosopher making scientific statements say something other than they actually tend to say.